Hatchery pink salmon from Prince William Sound are now flooding Cook Inlet streams at levels almost 35-times greater that what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game established in 2010 as the standard for “high levels of straying.”
As the time, the agency’s Genetics Section warned that “allowing increases in the proportions of hatchery strays into streams is not consistent with the department’s mission to manage on the sustained yield principle,” state records reveal.
An internal Fish and Game memo suggested the state needed a plan to protect the purity of wild salmon stocks by ensuring that “high levels of straying (greater than 2 percent) do not occur” due to the operations of private, non-profit hatcheries in the Sound. No plan was ever instituted, however, and pink salmon returns to many streams in the Sound are today composed of far more than 2 percent hatchery fish.
Meanwhile, hatchery strays have been quietly invading streams far from the Sound. A separate state memo written in December 2017 reveals hatchery fish showing up in huge numbers in streams in lower Cook Inlet, 150 miles to the southwest of the tip of Montague Island at the northern entrance to the Sound.
The latest memo says it was sparked by “data requests from the public, media, and the Marine Stewardship Council” wanting to know why there were so many pink salmon obvious in strange places around Homer in the summer of 2017.
The memo reveals the strays are nothing new.
“Prince William Sound hatchery-produced pink salmon were found at levels similar to previous years (2 percent to 70 percent),” it says. “Hatchery-marked pink salmon (Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet combined) outnumbered unmarked pink salmon on five of the 16 streams sampled, including three small streams sampled in response to public reports of unusually high escapements (i.e., Beluga Slough, Fritz Creek, Lou’s Creek).”
Specifically, the report showed:
- 69.8 percent of the pinks in Fritz Creek were Sound strays.
- 56.3 percent of the pinks in Homer’s Beluga Slough were Sound strays.
- 51.1 percent of the pinks in Dogfish Lagoon creeks were Sound strays.
- 49 percent of the pinks in Lou’s Creek in Lower Tutka Bay were Sound strays.
- 47.9 percent of the pinks in Port Chatham were Sound strays.
- 29.9 percent of the pinks in English Bay River were Sound strays.
- Four more streams had levels of Sound strays in double digits.
- And only one of the 16 streams surveyed was below the 2 percent threshold; that was Humpy Creek which was only 1.6 percent Sound strays.
The report on salmon straying has emerged as the Alaska Board of Fisheries heads into a special Tuesday meeting to review a Fish and Game decision to allow the Valdez Fisheries Development Association(VFDA) to expand pink salmon production at its Solomon Gulch Hatchery.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, joined by a host of other fishing and environmental interests, petitioned the Board to freeze Sound pink production until more is known about both the genetic consequences of pink salmon strays and food competition between pinks and sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon.
A study undertaken as part of the continuing efforts to track the environmental damage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill last year stumbled on a serious conflict between hatchery pinks and wild sockeye with the latter the big loser.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon returns,” the scientists wrote. “While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.
“Pink salmon have been found to negatively affect sockeye salmon productivity and growth from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Russia. Pink and sockeye salmon compete in the marine environment due to a high degree of similarity in diets, including similarities in diets of adult pink salmon and juvenile sockeye salmon.”
The sockeye salmon involved in the study were those returning to two major lake systems in the Sound and the Copper River adjacent to the southern edge of the Sound. The famous sockeye return to the Copper this year has been a disaster for commercial fishermen in Cordova, and largely a bust for in-river subsistence, personal-use dipnet and sport fishermen.
But given the virtual elimination of the commercial fishery – it was shutdown after only three short openings that resulted in the catch of but 26,000 sockeye – restrictions imposed on subsistence fishing, and temporary closures of personal-use dipnet and rod-and-reel fisheries, it appears the Copper will get enough sockeyes to meeting spawning needs.
The longterm consequences of increasing numbers of pink salmon being pumped out of hatcheries in the Sound, Southeast Alaska, on Kodiak Island and as far away as Russia remain unknown. What is known is that most of these fish mix in the western North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea where they compete for food.
Researchers Greg Ruggerone from Seattle and Jennifer Nielsen have suggested fast-growing, short-lived pinks that grow from fingerlings to 3.5- to 8-pound fish in only about a year and a half at sea have a competitive advantage over sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon that spend years in the ocean.
Researchers Allan Springer from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Gus van Vleit from Juneau went farther in a 2014, peer-reviewed paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and argued that pink salmon numbers in the North Pacific have now been increased to the point that the fish “constitute a pelagic consumer front as they return to their spawning rivers (and) exert top-down control over the open ocean ecosystem by out-competing other species for shared prey resources.”
The EVOS scientists suggested the Springer-van Vleit theory deserves some serious consideration.
“Our analysis was primary designed to test drivers in the nearshore environment, which is why we stopped at a lag of two (brood) years—when the majority of juvenile sockeye salmon out-migrate from the nearshore environment as adult pink salmon are returning to spawn,” they wrote.
“We do not know if possible deleterious interactions between hatchery pink salmon and wild sockeye salmon in this study are from predation or competition, or whether they occur in nearshore or offshore areas….The apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the northeast Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS in particular.”
If that is the case, hatchery pinks could be implicated in the decline of a wide variety of Alaska salmon runs, including king salmon returns that have been faltering statewide. The Kenai River early run Chinook fishery was closed early this year because of a weak return of fish, and the late-run of the fabled, child-size kings is struggling.
As of Tuesday, the in-river return was lagging that of the last two years, and based on the catch-per-unit-of-effort (CPUE) in commercial setnet fisheries in Cook Inlet off the mouth of the river, the return looks to be weak. The CPUE was about a third of the 1988-2011 average, and only about 60 percent of the 2009-2017 average which tracks the reduced-size runs of the current decade.
Hatcheries are not, however, without their supporters. Like fish farms, they are a neat and efficient way to harvest salmon.
VFDA salmon can be caught almost within spitting distance of a new fish processing plant, something about which Tommy Sheridan, the former chairman of the Prince William Sound Regional Planning Team that improved the increased production and now president of Silver Bay Seafoods has been reminding Sound businesses and local governments.
Sheridan has rallied hatchery supporters to pressure the board to allow hatchery growth.
“Massive investments have been made in infrastructure that wouldn’t be possible without hatchery production,” argues Jerry McCune of Cordova, the former president of the politically powerful United Fishermen of Alaska. He points to Silver Bay’s 2016 processing facility in Valdez designed to freeze 2.7 million pounds of salmon a day, and a McDowell Group consultancy report that concluded Sound hatchery pinks are worth more than $50 million to commercial fishermen ever year. That represents a big chunk of the estimated annual economic output of $80.1 million related to the hatcheries.
In Cordova, the home of PWSAC, city officials were quick to weigh in to support VFDA, arguing that the hatcheries bring big economic benefits to and “are built upon sound and sustainable fisheries policies intended to protect wild salmon populations.”
The claims echo those of fish farmers in British Columbia, who have come under fire for accidentally instead of intentionally releasing immature salmon into the ocean. The BC Salmon Farmers Association, however, says farming created 1,600 jobs and contributed $1.5 billion to the provincial economy in 2016 while producing salmon in the most environmentally sustainable way.
Sheridan has tried to spin the Fish Board review of increased hatchery salmon as an assault on all hatchery production in the Sound and a violation of the public trust.
“Attached please find a very simplistic sample form letter that folks have been bringing/sending to businesses in Valdez and Homer,” he said in an email to one business. “If you were able to share this with your business contacts, it would be greatly appreciated….
“What’s obvious to me is the poor process taking place. Public trust has been violated. It may not be redeemable if the board chooses to act on this petition. Also, from the area’s community perspectives, the good that hatchery production has brought to our communities and its residents cannot be understated. I’ve attached Silver Bay’s draft letter, but regrettably cannot share others’ letters with you on such short notice without violating their confidence. But please know that the City of Cordova, City of Valdez, Native Village of Eyak, and other similar entities are scrambling to contribute to this process.”
Sheridan contends KRSA and other organizations ambushed the process by petitioning the Board to take a look at the proposal for increased production after an in-house Fish and Game review had approved it and Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a former commercial fishermen, had turned down a request for a re-examination.
“… It is not unforeseen that some level of straying occurs in pink salmon stocks and concerns over straying effects and potential fishery management complications arising from increased pink salmon production levels were discussed by the RPT (regional planning team)…,” Cotten wrote in a letter explaining his decision.
“Furthermore, while there were relatively high numbers of PWS hatchery-produced
salmon found in several recent sampling events in lower Cook Inlet streams, not enough information is currently available to determine whether their presence threatens a fish or game resource.
“The petition does not demonstrate that approval of a 20 million increase in the number of pink salmon eggs to be harvested by VFDA in 2018 is an unforeseen, unexpected event threatening a fish or game resource.”
Nancy Hillstrand, a fish processor and hatchery critic in Homer, argues that Cotten, whose sons are commercial fishermen benefitting from catching pink salmon, has the standards for protecting Alaska’s wild fishery resources ass backward.
The rule shouldn’t be that someone has to prove hatchery fish are hurting wild fish, she said; the rule should be that the state or the hatcheries be able to show that stream-invading hatchery pinks aren’t harming wild fish.
While the state has fretted that Atlantic salmon escaping from fish farms in B.C. and the Pacific Northwest might spawn in Alaska streams – something that has as yet never happened – it has paid little attention to the millions of ranched, hatchery pinks spawning in streams all over the Sound and lower Cook Inlet.
“Our concern is that Atlantic salmon could compete with native salmon and trout for spawning and rearing habitat,” the state website says. “Juvenile Atlantic salmon are notably more aggressive than Pacific salmon, this characteristic could enable them to out compete Pacific salmon for food.”
Much the same concern has been raised about a billion hatchery pinks – that they could out-compete sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon for food in the ocean. But that concern has been largely ignored by state officials for what now appears to be almost a decade.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story misidentified the entity of which Tommy Sheridan was chairman.