no fish

The faltering 2018 salmon harvest as charted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game/ADF&G graphic

As Alaska’s 2018 commercial salmon season slides toward its end, 2018 is looking a lot like 2016 – the year of the big bust after the bonanza of 2015.

Twenty-fifteen was the second largest salmon harvest on record in the 49th state. And 72 percent of the catch – 190.5 million fish – was pink salmon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

A year later, the state went from the second best catch in Alaska history to the 10th worst  in more than four decades.  The harvest was less than half the previous year – down from 263.5 million to 111 million.

And pinks were a big no-show, the statewide catch falling from 190.5 million to 38 million. But most salmon returns were down with the exception of sockeye propped by up strong returns in Bristol Bay.

Scientists have long theorized that a pink salmon cycle of strong years and weak years is driven by the consumptive power of the fastest growing of the Pacific salmon. The thinking is that the large numbers of pinks of odd-numbered years eat so much that the even-year pinks must make do with the leftovers of a heavily grazed ocean.

In keeping with that theory, the Alaska catch rebounded last year. The 2017, odd-year, statewide salmon harvest was 224.6 million. The ocean that had been able support only 38 million pinks in 2016 produced more than 141 million pinks that accounted for 63 percent of the 2017 salmon catch.

“Tremendous harvests occurred across Alaska from Kotzebue to Southeast, highlighted by an all-time record statewide chum salmon harvest,” Forrest Bowers, the deputy director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries crowed in the 2017 commercial salmon harvest summary. “In addition, 2017 is the third year in a row statewide sockeye salmon harvest exceeded 50 million fish. Record wild salmon harvests like these are a testament to Alaska’s sound, science-based management, the professionalism of ADF&G’s staff, and thoughtful stakeholder engagement.”

There was no mention of 2016. It’s hard to tell where the state’s 2016 commercial salmon harvest summary went, but you can spend a lot of time Googling and not find it. The year-by-year harvests are easier to find, and there is a pattern there.

It is a big oscillation:

  • 2013 – 280 million.
  • 2014 – 156 million.
  • 2015 – 265 million.
  • 2016 – 111 million.
  • 2017 – 223 million.

The 2017 harvest ranked third biggest in state history behind 2015 and 2013. In all of those years, pinks were the bulk of the harvest. The smallest but fastest growing of the salmon comprised 80 percent of the catch in 2013, 72 percent in 2015, and 63 percent in 2017.


All of which brings this to the present.

As of the end of the week, the statewide harvest stood at just over 98 million salmon – about half of the 182 million at this time last year. Once again, the biggest missing component is pink salmon.

Pink catches that stood at 104 million at this time in 2017 are now at 34 million.  Intrafish, a commercial fishing website, describes this as  “pink salmon season a little slow.”

It may be more than that. Bristol Bay, which appears to be isolated from whatever is going on in the Gulf of Alaska from the Panhandle north and west around the coast to Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula, did well on sockeye, but it was a different story most everywhere else.

The returns of sockeye to the Copper River, Cook Inlet and Chignik were generally failures. Chignik never even had a season. The Copper River and Cook Inlet will meet spawning goals, but only because commercial fishing was sharply curtailed.

The Copper River harvest was fewer than 44,000 sockeye, according to Fish and Game data. The state’s preseason forecast called for a harvest of more than 1.2 million fish.

The Cook Inlet harvest was 693,000 sockeye, according to Fish and Game. The state’s Upper Cook Inlet forecast called for a harvest of 1.9 million. 

Some have blamed the year’s faltering returns on The Blob, a huge pool of unusually warm water in the Gulf of Alaska that began forming in 2013 and spread through 2014 and 2015 before beginning to fade in 2016. 

The Blob doesn’t explain the oscillations.

Nancy Hillstrand, a Homer, AK-area critic of Alaska’s ocean-ranching pink salmon hatcheries, has a different theory. She has begun talking about a “pink blob,” a wave of hatchery spawned pink and chum salmon about a billion strong dumped into Alaska coastal waters every  year.

Lower 48 scientists have been worrying about voracious pinks over grazing the Pacific range for years.  Some Alaska fisheries biologists have privately raised similar concerns, and they are now starting to take those views public.

State fisheries biologist Kevin Schaberg, who does research on Kodiak Island where some sockeye runs also faltered this year, on Friday suggested to KMXT radio in Kodiak that food competition could be a problem.

The concern is significant. If pink salmon production has reached the point where pinks go beyond their even-year/odd-year influence on each other and begin influencing all Alaska salmon, Alaska has a problem.

If the hatchery boosting of pink salmon is helping to depress wild salmon populations, Alaska has a bigger problem.

Commercial fishermen who worry about what a possible accident at a possible Pebble mine in the Iliamna Lake region might do to Bristol Bay salmon might want to give some thought to what existing hatcheries could already be doing to Copper River and Cook Inlet salmon.

Seabird researchers Alan Springer from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and independent research Gus van Vliet of Auke Bay have suggested the abundance of pink salmon in the North Pacific now at times controls food supplies that affect both fish and birds.

The influence of pink salmon “during years of high abundance apparently derives from voracious consumption to fuel exceptionally rapid growth in spring–summer of their second year—the mass of maturing fish increases by some 500 percent, from about 300 to 1,500 g, in just 4 mo between March and July when they spawn,” the wrote in a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014.

“In years of high abundance, (pinks) now constitute a pelagic consumer front as they return to their spawning rivers, exert top-down control over the open ocean ecosystem by out-competing other species for shared prey resources, and drive major ecological shifts between years of high and low abundance,” they concluded. “Their effect on competing species must be considered in international conservation policies and when developing informed ecosystem-based management strategies.”

“Top-down control over the open ocean ecosystem” has the power to influence everything in the ecosystem. Birds were dying, apparently of starvation, in far Western Alaska again this spring. The 2019 cohort of pink salmon were then moving onto the feeding grounds.

Some were blaming “The Blob” for the bird deaths as others blamed it for missing fish. But the real question here might be “which Blob?”

There appear legitimate reasons to ponder whether the problem is the blob of warm water, the blob of pink salmon or some combination of the two.









23 replies »

  1. A question first- Craig where or how do you get to the one billion number of Pink fry released annually?
    Second, after reading the Pearson link in an earlier piece, it seems the science is “In”; those Pinks directly compete with both salmon and herring. Is that in any way in dispute?

    • Bob – it’s the roughly rounded figure for what all of our hatcheries release every year. exact number this year was 841B. all depends on survival. they took about 1.24B eggs.

      it’s not in dispute as to whether pinks compete. what is in dispute is the degree of competition.

      but competition isn’t the only issue. we dump about 655M chum in the ocean every year. they don’t compete as directly with other salmon and herring, but they could have ecosystem impacts that do change the equation, including possible predator massing.

  2. How many smolt did they release each year? If the numbers were roughly the same there is strong correlation, and as much as correlation is not causation it sure is a pretty big sign point you in that right direction.

    I wonder how far back this information and trend shows this correlation.

      • Got a little out in front of my ski’s there Bill.

        I was talking about the correlation between salmon returns, particularly with the oscillation that Craig has indicated in this article, and how many hatchery smolt are released annually. If the same number are released year in and year out then there is a strong correlation between hatchery humpies depleting the food source for other salmon on a biennial basis.

      • Perhaps it’s just me here Steve, but how can you (or anyone for that matter) single out hatchery humpies from other pinks in any correlation? Especially when the salmon returns are for all salmon, and clearly all pink salmon. I suspect one could get a handle on numbers of hatchery returns but I still fail to see the correlation you speak of.
        By the way, it is my opinion that hatchery pinks have been fairly consistent lately, with the occasional shortage showing up, but we both know that wild pinks have not had a consistent release from the creeks. All I’ve seen from those studying this is that there are some effects on say birds and other salmon species “when in the presence of large numbers of pink salmon.” In other words I’m not seeing anyone even attempting to equate hatchery pinks as some kind of problem (other than straying) any different from pinks (in general).

      • I think it’s just you, Bill.

        You are aware that the hatcheries are dumping humpy smolt into the salt water right? I know that you’ve been part of this conversation in the past so I will assume you that you are aware that humpy smolt are being dumped into the salt in huge numbers.

        You are aware that wild humpy runs are abundant every other year right?

        I’m pretty sure that the hatchery dump of humpy smolt has been fairly steady from year to year, what happens to the hundreds and hundreds of millions of hatchery humpies in the off cycle year Bill? The reason the numbers for all salmon goes up and down every other year is due to the humpy returns, both wild and hatchery. Why don’t the hatchery humpy smolt return in the same numbers every year? What happens to all the hundreds and hundreds of millions of hatchery humpies in the off cycle year Bill? Correlation.

      • As I recall Steve, the off-year humpies have been preyed on by the strong year fish or that’s how I remember the reasoning behind it. It may also be that the strong year fish also eat up too much for that feed to recover for the off year fish (another argument).
        Let’s assume that both cases can occur and for the sake of argument, what is this correlation you speak of for hatchery humpies?
        What happens to those hatchery humpies in the off year? The same thing that happens to all the wild smolt in the off year! They get eaten or die off because of the lack of feed.
        I’m from Missouri, Steve, so you’ll just have to show me this correlation you speak of. Go ahead and take your time. Heheh!

      • Bill,

        I’ve lead the proverbial horse to the water, now it’s time to drink.

        Hundreds and hundreds of millions of hatchery humpy smolt every year. You acknowledge this fact correct?

        Those hundreds and hundreds of millions of hatchery humpy smolt deplete the environment they live in. As you said, for the sake of argument, “the off-year humpies have been preyed on by the strong year fish” or “the strong year fish also eat up too much for that feed to recover for the off year fish”.

        Every other year, this is the key, every other year MORE salmon return than the previous year. Humpies run in a greater abundance every other year. Hatchery humpies are released at approximately the same number every year.

        It’s correlation. Maybe you don’t know what correlation means? Correlation is defined as the state or relation of being correlated; specifically : a relation existing between phenomena or things or between mathematical or statistical variables which tend to vary, be associated, or occur together in a way not expected on the basis of chance alone.

        It’s not chance alone that causes massive numbers of hatchery humpies to return every other year.

        What happens to all the hundreds and hundreds of millions of hatchery humpies in the off cycle year Bill? Surely the hatcheries know what the return rate is for their smolt releases every year, maybe they know what happens to them?

      • “Correlation is defined as the state or relation of being correlated,” you’re not serious here are you?
        Correlation is a statistical relationship between two variables and the closer to 1 the correlation coefficient is the greater the correlation and a zero coefficient means there is no correlation at all. A minus 1 coefficient means the correlation is a perfect negative correlation. Anyway, if you are so convinced of your “correlation” here, why not just go ahead and show how close to 1 your correlation coefficient is???
        I find it absurd that there is any correlation at all in what you are suggesting so if you feel otherwise, just show us with some numbers and skip with the bullchit.

      • Bill,

        How did I know you would choke on that definition? Thanks for the statistics course professor, but you seem to have confused the correlation coefficient with the definition on correlation.

        Anyways, the important part of the definition of correlation is: a relation existing between phenomena or things or between mathematical or statistical variables which tend to vary, be associated, or occur together in a way not expected on the basis of chance alone.

        Now please re-read my last post and try and understand it instead of trying to win this little branch of the world wide web.

        Where do the smolt go Bill, where do they go? Using the correlation coefficient I am much closer to 1 than you are, as I’ve used numbers and referenced numbers while all you have done is argue against the obvious.

        Clearly there is a correlation between hatchery humpy smolt release and humpy returns, clearly there is a correlation between hatchery humpy smolt release and the oscillation of salmon caught on an annual basis. To say otherwise is ignorant, to argue against the painfully obvious is beyond ignorant.

      • Talk is cheap, Steve-O but whiskey costs money.
        Like I said quit with the BS and just show us your correlation (ie. what is the correlation coefficient). You’ve said you have numbers, so just go ahead and give us this strong correlation you speak of.
        A little hint for you is that the strong year and weak year for pinks is not something that showed up since hatchery pinks came on the scene. Pretty clear that your using hatchery pinks would not be possible prior to their introduction, yet the same situation existed prior to hatcheries. In other words, the strong year influenced the weak year when only wild fish participated and you are wont to say now that somehow this strong correlation just showed up with hatcheries?
        I don’t buy it but will wait for your numbers to prove me wrong.

      • There you go again Bill, reading words that aren’t there. Where did I say that hatcheries caused the off year cycle, where did I try and correlated the two? I didn’t.

        Reading is fundamental professor, you really should do more of it. All the numbers and correlation are up there^ read before you respond, or just remain willfully ignorant as always.

        Have a good day professor.

      • We’ll just have to disagree here, Steve-O.
        And it was you who started talking about hatchery smolts (nobody was talking hatcheries causing anything except releasing those smolts). “I was talking about the correlation between salmon returns, particularly with the oscillation that Craig has indicated in this article, and how many hatchery smolt are released annually.”
        Those are your words and in case you are interested, F & G does a June surface trawl to determine the numbers of pink fry heading out to sea in SE Alaska. There are few pink hatcheries in SE so the numbers tend to be wild pink fry. Such a program would be difficult for PWS with so many large hatcheries releasing the numbers of pinks they do.
        Anyway, if you ever do decide to show your work, I’ll be interested in it but will not hold my breath.

      • Bill,

        It’s ok buddy, you don’t understand the meaning of the word correlation. If you cared to try and understand the meaning of the word this conversation might make sense to you, but because you choose to be willfully ignorant you disagree and fail to grasp the simplest concepts. That’s your right, but you asked me to explain it to you and when I did you made a decision to ignore my explanation. I don’t disagree with you Bill, I just tried to explain a simple concept and you failed to understand it nothing more nothing less.

        Stay strong Bill, fight the power of learning. Never surrender to expanding your knowledge.

      • We all know who doesn’t have a clue about what correlation is. After all your own definition of it:
        “Correlation is defined as the state or relation of being correlated” Heheh!
        I think we’ve beat this dead horse enough, don’t you?

      • Reading comprehension much Bill? That definition you find so laughable comes from a dictionary, those are books that hold the meanings of words, and you have to read the entire definition for it to make sense you can’t just cut and paste the sections you want. But feel free to remain willfully ignorant, it hasn’t stopped you yet.

  3. Seems like its time for fishermen (commercial and sport) to organize a class action lawsuit and shut down the humpy hatcheries.

    But the bit about pinks disrupting the food chain and causing the demise of sea birds … that can’t possibly be true. ‘Cuz expert on everything Bill Yankee assured me on this web site that it was not possible.

    • James,
      I agree it is time this issue goes to court, problem is the “bar” is so darn corrupt, it is hard to find a good attorney to take on case, but let’s start looking…

      • A political problem requires a political solution. Figure out how to craft a solution that everyone wins. Sportfish / subsistence / personal use wants to eliminate the pink fry dumping into PWS. Commfish wants to sell $50 million worth of pink salmon every year. Solution? Convert the hatchery output to onshore / offshore fish farms. Sell to the ChiComs on a 24/7 basis. The hatcheries are already in place. Only need to figure out how to divert the output and grow the sales. Best of all, you could probably do it pretty quickly. Cheers –

      • Problem is the politicians have made fish “farming” illegal in AK and the oil lobbyists love pumping the millions of gallons of Diesel into the “ranching” fleet every fishing season…
        I am afraid a political solution is no where in sight.
        At the least the courts can issue a moratorium on dumping humpy fry until natural runs return…or the farms are built.
        I just heard Cod catches around Kodiak are down 80 % from all time highs.
        Maybe the Billions of hatchery stock are eating their young as well?

    • First of all James, our conversation was only whether/not pinks caused the recent huge die-off of Common Murres (not sea birds). I still stand by my comments on that but do have some concern about large numbers of pinks having issues with Shearwater declines.
      I just love it when folks have to resort to bullshit in order to make a point.

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