For the first time in Alaska history, the state Board of Fisheries has voted to put the interests of the fishing industry ahead of wild salmon.
The action came Tuesday after biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game testified that they have no idea as to the ecological consequences of the more than 1 billion pink salmon now dumped into the North Pacific Ocean every year by the state’s industrial salmon ranchers.
Nineteen conservation groups led by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association had petitioned the Board to prohibit the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VDFA) from expanding its industrial salmon ranching operation until more is known about the implications for wild salmon.
Studies conducted by scientists in the Lower 48 and Canada have suggested that fast-growing pinks – which go from tiny fingerlings to 3.5- to 5-pound fish in only a year and a half in the ocean – enjoy a competitive advantage over wild Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon that spend a year or more in freshwater and years at sea before returning to their natal streams to spawn.
When it comes to protecting wild Alaska salmon, past state Fish Boards have always followed what is called “the precautionary principle,” which echoes the prime directive of medicine’s Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”
The Board appointed by Gov. Bill Walker, a commercial fishing advocate and resident of Valdez prior to his election, flipped that rule on its head. In the absence of definitive proof hatchery pinks are harming wild salmon, the Board voted 4 to 3 to allow VFDA to take another 20 million pink salmon eggs to ratchet up the production of pink salmon already at an expected level of 17 million adults this year.
Scientists studying the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) last year stumbled on a startling, statistical link between hatchery pinks and fading runs of wild sockeye salmon. In a peer-review study published at PLOS-One, they reported they could find no sign of lasting damage from the oil spill in the Sound, but they found significant damage caused by pink salmon.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS (Prince William Sound) hatchery pink salmon returns,” they 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.”
The hatchery return of pinks to PWS is this year forecast at almost 51 million: 17 million VFDA pinks plus another 34 million produced by Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC). On top of that, another 2 million wild pinks are expected.
Returns of sockeyes to the Copper River have crashed. A preseason forecast of 1.9 million is expected to come up at least one million short. The once productive Chignik sockeye fishery on the Alaska Peninsula has been closed all season. Kodiak area sockeye harvests are “the worst in 38 years,” said Scott Kelley, director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries. And Cook Inlet sockeye returns look weak.
The sockeye failures had a downtown meeting room filled to standing room only with out-of-work commercial fishermen, frustrated dipnetters and irritated salmon anglers when the Board met to consider the KRSA and other petitions.
All were upset about the Alaska sockeye returns, but independent scientist Greg Ruggerone from Seattle, Canadian government biologist James Irvine and other scientists believe that might be just the tip of the iceberg. They have suggested the industrial-level production of hatchery salmon in Alaska might have bigger, coast-wide implications.
They theorize that huge numbers of pinks and chums now trigger “trophic cascades” that can significantly reduce the prey available for Chinook and coho from the Pacific Northwest north to Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island.
Hatcheries were a major issue of concern with some national environmental organizations more than a decade ago, but then strangely faded out of sight. Nelli Williams, the Alaska director of Trout Unlimited (TU), said the organization has been monitoring the situation here, but has been too busy to do much more.
TU devotes most of its time to continuing efforts to halt development of the Pebble Mine near Lake Iliamna in Southwest Alaska. It considers the mine a grave threat to the region’s salmon. It is strongly aligned with commercial fishing interests there.
“Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program collaborates closely with commercial fishermen…,” the organization’s website says. Commercial fishermen – who managed to get fish farming banned in Alaska – are the main backers of the state’s private, non-profit hatchery system, which ocean ranches salmon at the industrial level.
Between the years 2000 and 2012, the VFDA hatchery alone was worth $113 million to the “Prince William Sound seine fishery,” according to an economic analysis prepared for VFDA by the McDowell Group, a consultancy.
There are 267 fishermen with limited entry permits to seine salmon in the Sound, according to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (CFEC). Those fishermen struggled through the 1990s when demand for high-volume, low-value canned pinks dried up, but their situation has improved as markets for salmon burgers and salmon in pouches have developed, and as processors have shifted from canning all pinks to freezing some for shipment to China where they are fileted by cheap labor and the filets shipped around the world.
The fishermen have had up years and down years since the 1990s, but over the past decade – from 2007 to 2016 (2017 data is not yet available) – they earned an average, annual gross of $345,936 per permit, according to CFEC figures.
For them, the hatcheries have definitely been a good thing. Whether the hatcheries have been good for all Alaska fishermen – commercial, subsistence, personal use and sport – is a far more complicated question.
Asked about the growing pink salmon hatchery production in the Sound, Kelley defended it by noting that his agency has seen no signs of a decline in wild pinks in the region.
The sockeye of the Copper River just to the south of the Sound went strangely unmentioned, and Kelley offered no view on how many of the “wild” Sound pinks are actually hybrids. State studies have found hatchery pinks in almost every stream in the Sound in recent years, and they have been interbreeding with wild fish.
Last year, large numbers of Sound hatchery fish also showed up far from home in streams in Lower Cook Inlet. William Templin, the state’s salmon fisheries scientist for commercial fisheries, told the Board that the straying was a natural, evolutionary occurrence.
“They’re exploring,” he said. “They’re looking for new places.”
He was not asked about the consequences if those straying humpies were successful in expanding their range to produce even more of their kind, and what that naturally enhanced addition to hatchery production might mean for other species of salmon.
“Pink salmon have been found to negatively affect sockeye salmon productivity and growth from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Russia,” the EVOS scientists wrote. “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. Our analysis was primary designed to test drivers in the nearshore environment, which is why we stopped at a lag of 2 (brood) years—when the majority of juvenile sockeye salmon – from the nearshore environment as adult pink salmon are returning to spawn.
“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. (But) pink salmon feeding may cause a general depletion of prey availability that could impact sockeye salmon without tight spatial overlap of these two species. In this regard, the apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the NE Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS in particular.”
Asked about pink salmon now showing up in Northwest Alaska for the first time and whether any of those fish might be hatchery strays, Templin said, “to my knowledge those are not actually strays.”
Kelley, however, admitted the state has never looked for hatchery strays in the Bering Seas.
Neither of the biologists made any mention of the possibility the fish might have come from Russia, which has copied the success of industrial salmon ranching pioneered in Alaska starting in the late 1970s.
“Russian authorities rapidly expanded hatchery releases from 573.8 million pink and chum juveniles in 2000 to 904.4 million juveniles in 2010, roughly a 40 percent increase over 10 years,” according to the Wild Salmon Center.
The organization has been lobbying Russian hatcheries to mark their fish so strays can be detected. The Russians have 38 pink and chum salmon hatcheries in the Sakhilin and Kuril islands southeast of the Bering Sea, and both Russian and Alaska salmon range into the Bering Sea.
With hatchery production boosting natural pink salmon production already booming in part thanks to global warming, Ruggerone and Irvine have calculated pinks now make up almost half of the total biomass of salmon in the North Pacific.
Asked whether the large numbers of pinks could be suppressing other salmon populations, Templin said, “nobody’s resolved that issue yet.”
Ruggerone, Irvine and a host of others who claim evidence of “trophic cascades” would beg to differ. The issue, they say, is not black and white, but the greys are clearly shading in one direction.
For some, it doesn’t matter. Many Alaska fishermen are now heavily invested in hatcheries.
They have for years been paying a 2 to 3 percent “enhancement tax” on their annual salmon catches. The money they’ve spent on aquaculture programs and the obvious success of salmon enhancement in the Sound has made most of them into hatchery supporters even in areas where they are getting no return from hatchery production.
Salmon processors are even bigger hatchery boosters. The Pacific Seafood Processors Association, an industry trade group, and three of the biggest processors operating in Alaska – Trident Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods and Ocean Beauty Seafoods – in 2010 asked the private, non-profit hatcheries in the Sound for a greater than 60 percent increase in hatchery output.
“From 2000-2009 the average statewide hatchery pinks returns were 32.6 million in even years and 55.9 million in odd years – in both cases about 40 percent of total pink returns,” they wrote in an “Open Letter to Alaska Hatcheries.”
“We would like production to increase to 70 million in both even and odds years over the next five years, which would bring hatchery production to roughly 50 percent of that total.”
The processors are now helping fund a $16 million, “targeted research” study of pink salmon straying in the Sound and the annual ratios of returns per spawner, “an important measure of productivity and fitness,” according to summary of work to date, which goes on to say:
“It is particularly important that hatchery operators and processors continue their support of the project, both for financial reasons as well as showing a commitment to maintaining this ground-breaking research that is designed to directly address questions about the Alaska salmon hatchery program. Processors had initially committed to 5 years; we hope they will continue their same level of support for the remainder of
The report, published on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website, led Board member Reed Morisky from Fairbanks to ask Kelley how the state could ensure “disinterested research” when the commercial fishing division appears so tight with hatcheries and processors.
Kelley answered with the response that the state was in a “collaborative” relationship, and he was confident the research was “significantly driven by the science panel,” which “gives me confidence it won’t be biased.”
He also defended his agency’s actions to date by saying only “incremental” increases in hatchery production have been allowed. Neither he nor Templin, however, offered any idea of how the ecological consequences of those incremental increases were being judged.
They, in fact, suggested the state doesn’t know diddly about salmon competition in the ocean, where pinks appear to be dominating with help from hatcheries; and they said there is no agency rule for how many hatchery fish have to stray before straying rates become unacceptable.
Templin admitted that a 2 percent number was once discussed by the agency, but never formalized. Other numbers have been “thrown out for a given situation,” he added. One Lower Cook Inlet streams surveyed last year was found to contain nearly 70 percent hatchery pinks.
A query to Fish and Game as to whether any Upper Cook Inlet streams were examined for hatchery strays has gone unanswered.
When Morisky specifically asked Kelley how great the number of strays and how big the size of hatchery releases had to get before the Fish and Game decided the annual dump of hatchery pink salmon fry was too big, Kelley’s answer was that “that is literally the billions of dollars question.
“I can’t answer the question.”
The state’s plan, he said, is to “incrementally step” up hatchery production of pinks while monitoring returns of wild pinks in the Sound to see if the latter begin to decline. That is pretty much how the Japanese determined the limit of their hatchery program.
They steadily boosted hatchery releases until return rates began to fall significantly, and then reduced hatchery production to where yields produced the most profitable return. But it was easier in Japan. Many of their wild runs of salmon had been nearly wiped out by the time hatchery production began.
“Due to the destruction of old growth riparian forests and wetland habitat across most of Japan, and loss of access to natural spawning habitat – nearly 27 percent of the total spawning area of Hokkaido Island is inaccessible from the sea because of dams – many of the native wild salmon populations have been extirpated. The list of lost salmon runs includes a beautiful and rare subspecies of cherry salmon and white spotted char,” notes the website Ocean Outcomes.
“To keep commercial fisheries and local businesses running, Japan invested heavily in the development of one of the most extensive hatchery systems in the world, which now churns out billions of salmon juveniles annually….(As a result), the Hokkaido Island chum salmon fishery is the highest volume chum fishery in the world, annually producing up to and over 100,000 tonnes of salmon, shipped to domestic and export markets (such as the US) alike.”
And if you can produce huge volumes of salmon profitably, does it really matter how many wild fish survive?
CORRECTION: An early version of this story over-stated the size of adult pink salmon.