Alaska to NYT

alaska's biggest salmon harvests

Alaska commercial salmon harvests from 1975 to 2017. The 2018 harvest would at this time slot in between 1988 and 1990./ADF&G graphic

UPDATED: This story was edited on Aug. 23 to the include the reports of phenomenal sockeye salmon fishing on the Copper River. The bar graph was also reversed to avoid confusion over the increase in harvest from the 1970s to the 2010s.


This is an open letter to the New York Times. It might be more effective to Tweet “fake news” since the grand old lady sometimes now seems fixated on every such accusation, but that term is so overused as to have become meaningless.

And in this case, as in so many others, there is nothing fake about a mistake. A mistake is simply a mistake.

The Times made a big one. It Tuesday reported this:

“Like many people around the world in an era of climate change and pollution, Alaskans have seen startling disruptions in the fisheries that sustain them — in this case, the salmon that return to rivers in warmer months to spawn after feeding in the open sea.”

The statement is badly wrong. It would also have been easily checked.

If there have been “disruptions in the fisheries” in Alaska – and it’s hard to argue for disruptions in a natural system that yoyos through time – the disruptions would be the exact opposite of what the Times suggests in a story headlined “A Dwindling Catch Has Alaskans Uneasy.”

Alaska has suffered an overwhelming bounty of fish in the era of climate change – not the 2018 shortage (itself misleading) the story suggests.

The 2017 Alaska salmon harvest was the third largest on record at 224.6 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The second largest harvest, according to the state agency, came in 2015 when commercial fishermen in Alaska killed 263.5 million salmon. 

The record harvest came in 2013 when the commercial harvest reached 272 million salmon, according to the records. 

Between these years, in even-numbered years like this one, harvests have fallen. But even in 2016, one of the worst of the even-numbered years and considered a minor disaster by some, the catch was more than 111 million salmon.

The five-year, average salmon harvest for The Blob years ,  when the Gulf of Alaska was unusually warm, is close to 205 million fish. 

That is double the harvest of what were historically considered good years in an Alaska harvest of North Pacific salmon dating back to the 19th century.

“While most people familiar today with the Alaska salmon fishery would consider annual commercial salmon harvests of less than 100 million as a disaster,” state scientists wrote in a lengthy, 2006 review of “The Commercial Fishery in Alaska,” “from the inception of the salmon fishery in the late 1800s through the 1970s, such harvest levels were considered a Godsend. Prior to the (state salmon) plan being written, annual commercial harvest levels in excess of 100 million salmon had only happened in six years (1918, 1934, 1936 to 1938, and 1941; only 6 percent of the years prior to 1980). Since 1980, the Alaska commercial salmon fishery has only once (4 percent of the years) harvested less than 100 million salmon—in 1987, the harvest was 96.6 million fish.”

Nineteen-eighty-seven still boasts the lowest harvest in the modern era, and the only harvest to fall below 100 million in the past 38 years. The 2018 harvest has already topped 100 million, and there are still open fisheries in which salmon are being caught daily. 

Yes, there are Alaska fisheries that did not meet expectations for returns this year, as happens every year. And there were fisheries that exceeded expectations for returns, as happens every year. And there were fisheries where sockeye salmon runs were unusually late.

The Copper River, which usually peaks in June, saw an unusual surge of those fish the middle of this month.

“Best fishing we’ve seen in years!” reported Hem Charters, a small company that runs a charter service for Alaska dipnet fishermen reported Monday. “One day we brought in over 1,500 fish.”

Overall in Alaska fisheries, the “bad” years of the present era match or exceed the “good” years of the good old days. The problem, if one were to call a bounty a problem, is that a lot of the salmon that return to Alaska now are not the kind of salmon Alaskans most desire.

Alaskans are spoiled. They prefer the bright-red, strongly flavored flesh of sockeye, Chinook and coho salmon over the paler, milder-tasting flesh of pink salmon, which have come to make up the majority of the Alaska catch.

Humpie invasion

Boosted by an Alaska hatchery program dumping more than 1 billion young salmon in the ocean every year, the fish Alaskans call “humpbacks” or “humpies” due to the pronounced shape of spawning males might be mucking with the natural order of things, too.

Even-year pink salmon are increasingly dominant in the ecosystem for reasons still unknown. And there is growing evidence that their dominance could be affecting other salmon species.

“Research consistently indicated that pink salmon significantly altered prey abundance of other salmon species (e.g., zooplankton, squid), leading to altered diet, reduced total prey consumption and growth, delayed maturation, and reduced survival, depending on species and locale,” research scientists Greg Ruggerone and Jennifer Nielsen observed in a paper in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries more than a decade ago.

Since then, Ruggerone and scientist James Irvine of Canada have quantified the explosion of pink salmon in the North Pacific and concluded, “these species are more abundant now than ever.”

“Following an initial peak during 1934–1943,” they wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries this year, “abundances were low until the 1977 regime shift benefited each species. During 1990–2015, Pink salmon dominated adult abundance (67 percent of total) and biomass (48 percent), followed by chum salmon (20 percent, 35 percent) and sockeye salmon (13 percent, 17 percent.)

“Alaska produced approximately 39 percent of all pink salmon, 22 percent of chum salmon, and 69 percent of sockeye Salmon, while Japan and Russia produced most of the remainder. Although production of natural‐origin salmon is currently high due to generally favorable ocean conditions in northern regions, approximately 60 percent of chum salmon, 15 percent of pink salmon, and 4 percent of sockeye salmon during 1990–2015 were of hatchery origin. Alaska generated 68 percent and 95 percent of hatchery pink salmon and sockeye salmon, respectively, while Japan produced 75 percent of hatchery chum salmon.”

When Ruggerone and Irvine write of a “regime shift” and “generally favorable ocean conditions,” they are talking about the warming of North Pacific since the 1970s. The warmer ocean is credited with the biggest role in boosting Alaska salmon production.

“Salmon stocks from Alaska have been highly productive since the 1976 regime change in the North Pacific, an estimated three times more productive than in 1946-1975 period,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “The periods of increased salmon production correspond to an eastward shift of the Aleutian Low pressure system which produces more frequent and severe winter storms and a warming of the surface waters in the Gulf of Alaska. This shift between warm and cold periods is now called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).”

The “warming of the surface waters in the Gulf of Alaska” is the important part for fish. They don’t much notice the winter storms sweeping across the seas to batter the Alaska coast.

Most everyone agrees warming is in most cases a bad thing, including many Alaskans now living in coastal areas battered by winds gusting to 100 mph. But in the specific case of Alaska salmon, global warming, regional warming, North Pacific warming – call it whatever you want – has to this point been a good thing.

That could change. Many scientists expect it will if the planet keeps on warming. There is an upper limit at which warm waters start to depress salmon populations instead of inflate them, but we are not at that point yet, and there is no telling when it will be reached.

To suggest otherwise at this time is simply wrong. Flat-out, 100 percent wrong.

There are other observations in your story equally wrong, but there is no sense getting into those in any detail. Compared to the suggestion Alaska salmon have now fallen victim to climate change – when, in fact, North Pacific warming has to date done the exact opposite –  the other mistakes barely warrant a mention.

Still, for future reference, your editors might want to note that “steel-colored waters” is a horrible description for any water given that steel comes in a wide range of colors from pale yellow through dark yellow to red-brown, purple, dark blue, light blue and grey.

The Copper River, a natural slurry pipeline carrying glacially ground rock to the sea in the form of silt, might best described as “silt grey” or “mud brown” depending on the day, or one could simply use the U.S. Geological Survey definition for the color of the silt – “tan-gray” – given that the river is defined in all ways by its phenomenal silt load.

The silt is why one rarely “sees” salmon in the river; the water is so dirty one can only see an inch or two deep. The USGS reports that the sediment discharged from the river sometimes exceeds 1 million tons per day. That’s a lot of dirt.

So was your story.

43 replies »

  1. Is that Israel Payton identified in the article as commercially fishing on the Susitna the same Israel Payton who as a member of the board of fish championed restrictions to the uci drift fleet? Restrictions that would put more fish in his nets?

  2. I’m hoping to be wrong but it seems we’ve reached peak crazy. Certainly not the first or last time. I’ve been thinking a lot lately as to how we got (get) here (there). Everyone seems to have some sort of Jones about something, everything? And I thought the 70’s were IT in terms of up being down and the reciprocal. Frankly, I look forward to new blood. Being a boomer, I’m pretty much disgusted by my cohort. With alacrity, I’ll hand the reins to my kids, ya know, the much maligned mills. Just about everything I can think about in terms of fucked-upness these days are the result of us boomers. Apologies to those that have actually improved the landscape.

    And yeah, this applies to SALMON, too.

    • Monk,
      Just watched the movie “DamNation”…you are so right about the touch of man messing up the natural world.
      Many hydro dams are being removed and natural salmon runs restored in Washington, Oregon and Maine.
      3 modern wind turbines can generate the same amount of power that an old 1950’s hydro dam produced.
      The costs of hatchery operations in America are over a billion dollars a year and would have been totally unnecessary had it not been for dams and commercial over fishing…
      If we use a simple equation of letting half of a natural run spawn and only harvesting the other half, we would have salmon for life.
      Instead we have depleted natural runs and replaced them with an artificial mono culture of pinks emerging…a species that has been “inbreded” in the Hatchery walls and raised in a concrete pool with food pellets and no predators.
      It is no wonder that less than 10 percent of these fish released ever return home…totally unsustainable for nature or man.

  3. Hugely important base article! Large parts of The press are accelerating the demise of America. They accept very inaccurate information to use . At times they purposely make up stories and photos to further their agendas. The worst part I see is when they take facts and mix with innuendo carefully mixing and salting to lead the news consumer to think a certain direction. That’s worse than straight up lies as it’s hard to decipher and critical thinking becomes imperative. You can’t trust any individual words or statements without careful multiple source fact checking. The press misleads so many people this way . Craig you hit on probably the most important issue of our era . Misleading information. We as Americans are all in this together and need to watch each other’s backs . The standard press needs held to higher standards. It’s a personal affront to all Americans to be misled . Especially by historically trusted news sources. I’m not talking about the occasional mistake by rookie reporters.

  4. You should not feel so good about the Copper River numbers. Hatchery reds in July do not replace the deficit created by having no wild fish in May. And I am not talking about any fisher’s bottom line or catch. Hatchery produced reds do not return to the hundreds of lakes and streams in a drainage the size of West Virginia. They head back to Gulkana hatchery. That does not feed the bears, eagles, river otters, trout, seals, sculpin etc. etc., nor equitably distribute those marine derived nutrients that make up a significant part of the carbon cycle that had been in charge of running this place.

  5. I was temporarily stunned, as we Americans, are in this situation. It seems a lot like Nixon and Watergate!, though in a reality, our President will not resign. He will also not be impeached, either. Pence? You got to be kidding me! He would do more damage!
    Actually, it does not really matter, in the long run.
    Corporate Capitalism is in control, and it will not let go! Have a great life!

    • Here is a Trump quote from his recent interview with Ainsley Earhardt, James: “If I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash, I think everybody would be very poor. Because without this thinking [points to head] you would see, you would see numbers that you wouldn’t believe in reverse.”
      Now that is “stunning” IMO.

      • Well Nordonia Nate, since you asked. The stock market has been going up for approximately 10 years and Don Trump has been on the scene for just two of them.
        Of course nothing wrong with tooting your own horn, I guess, but Don has made it a bit of an art form without much to back it up IMO.

      • Trump’s state of the economy: This is the best consumer environment ‘I’ve seen in my career’
        Target sees unprecedented growth in same-store sales and foot traffic during the second quarter.
        CEO Brian Cornell credits the strongest consumer environment he’s ever seen for the retailer’s solid results.
        This follows similarly strong results from companies like Walmart, Kohl’s and TJ Maxx owner TJX.

      • Amusing. The article is about salmon fishing and the NYT misleading story… Somehow YOU made it about Trump with your anti Trump rhetoric. The part that is sad.. I have a higher probability of getting censored for pointing out your misleading generalization regarding the stock market..

        Therefore… You have a ball with your desperation and your need for cathartic hypocrisy while the rest of us discuss the article and the salmon situation in Alaska.


      • Nordonia, you are correct. I am guilty as well. These “diversions” can be healthy for participation but, can be also a turnoff as well. It is clear politics is a hot topic and there are two clear sides. The Constitutionalist, pro-American and the crazy loons.

      • My concern is a simple one. When an article is about Alaska salmon fishing, I am lost when someone attacks Trump. The people moderating should be screening off topic, personal attacks out of the exchange. It’s sad that our society has degenerated to this level where moderators are fearful of taking the appropriate action and the person living on hate has so much power.

        Quite frankly, the moderator should resign BEFORE they censor my comment:-)

      • the moderator tries to tread lightly. but this is getting to the point where he might have to if you and Bryan can’t be civil.

      • Actually Nordonia Nate, I was replying to another post that referenced Trump’s recent situation, so I hardly made it anything about Don Trump as it had already come up. You asked (why?) and I gave you my reasoning-you haven’t attempted a rebuttal but felt the need to attack the messenger. Good luck with that and there is no chance of your being censored for NOT pointing out anything I posted, other than you didn’t like it. Tough noogies!
        And the salmon situation has been discussed rather exhaustingly for months, here without your participation (then and now).

      • To Nordonia Nate…
        There are many parallels here with fishing in Alaska, NYT reporting and Trump.
        Richard Nixon was responsible for blocking an overland oil pipeline through Canada which would have prevented the Exxon Valdez oil spill in PWS and the associated collapse of the Herring fishery which may have led to declining King Salmon size and numbers….
        This came out in the Watergate tapes…
        The transcripts were published in NYT completely.
        Nixon also fired the initial Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox…just like Trump fires any dissent in his own government.
        So, if Trump is not held accountable for his actions, we may lead to another environmental disaster as he moves to open ANWR without any restrictions or lets the Chinese Government build a gas line in our back yard.
        Many similarities as we follow this case.

      • Craig, I do apologize. I respect and appreciate your blog, hardwork and reporting. Again, I appreciate you letting us ramble on. Politics is tough and passionate right now in a divided America as you know. So, certain topics garner more attention and passion if you will. I admit I am guilty. Again, I enjoy your reporting and site. Will tone it down.

      • Steve . Think Bloomberg- one of trumps mortal enemy- would Bloomberg print a evenly based article? It’s easy to see When Bloomberg draws a correlation between Nixon’s downfall and economic reasons it’s nonsense grasping at straws . Nixon would have been fine period if he hadn’t broken the law . That was Nixon’s downfall . If you paid attention to the news in that era it would be apparent. Now Bloomberg tries to stretch or rewrite history. Sure economics may have broke camels back but bottom line was Nixon broke law and that’s what got him in trouble. Incredibly misleading article .

    • James, what situation might that be? That the Democrats tried to steal the election through fraud as a complicit media continues to cover it up? Or that “everybody” was sure Hillary would “win”, she didn’t, and Trump Derangement Syndrone set-in? Or that we have an Obama corrupt FBI, CIA, or IRS? Or the war on police? I agree, how did we get here? How did such a leftist, violent mob attain sway in America?

    • Trump needs to face impeachment charges, no matter what the outcome.
      His presidency is a disgrace for our Democracy or maybe he is our first real Capitalist Dictator?

      • Steve , Bryan only spoke true words . Why call him names ? There are facts to back most of bryans statements. As to impeachment – trump wasn’t hired to be angelic. He’s uncouth as heck but America needs someone who stands up for America hard core . That’s why he got the job . Not becouse anybody enjoys his speech or lay it bare talking. Most people with significant money took advantage of someone and trump knows how to deal with those people as that’s been his life . I have never seen a president for past 100 years that was perfect. Lots of very questionable people. At least trump is trying to stand up for America’s interest and takes pride in that . Everyone should get behind him and help him do a good job . Otherwise you are just in the way . If you have a brilliant idea to help him make America better then go volunteer to work with his presidency. Maybe you can make a difference.

      • Ramey,
        People might ask, Why do you have a new handle every week?
        Truth, Opinion…it is all B.S.
        I just heard last week that “Ramey” is not even your real name…it is James I was told.
        So, one might ask…
        What are U trying to hide from?
        If Trump colluded with a foreign hostile regime like Russia to get elected….If, then that is an unimpeachable offense.
        Why take away Brennan’s clearance with judicial hearing.
        So much is unprecedented at this time.
        By the way, I do not support men like Donald who pay off porn stars to keep them silent, then bully their attorney to lie about it.
        Bigots suck for America!

      • Thanks Opinion. Well said! Come on Steve, I enjoy your posts up until now. Not because you slam me but, because you completly deny the facts. The stock market bern going strong the last 8yrs not because of Obama’s policies but in spite of Obama’s policies. Americam’s and Corporations trust Trumps judgement. Did you feel Obama should have been impeached for using the FBI, CIA, or IRS as a personal tool to go after his enemies or Fast and Furious, or starting a war against the police which resulted in numerous deaths, or giving the Muslim Brotherhood an office in the White House, or loaning al Queada our air force in Libya, or Benghazi, or or, or, or, or…the list goes on. How about Hillary paying people to start fights at Trump rallies and tuen the media blames “violent” trump supporters, how about Hillary’s fake pee Dossier, the whole foundation for the Mueller “investigation”, or the vermon media, Hollywood, ATIFA, or Democrat nut jobs who have lost their minds because crooked Hillary didnt win. “Trump should be impeached” are you out of your mind? Don’t answer that, you habe proved the answer. “A Capitalist Dictator”?

      • Bryan,
        I would not expect a commercial pilot (if you are what you say) to believe in Climate Change or Pollution for that matter.
        Airlines are one of the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases.
        As for the Trump thing, you are way behind the curve as nearly 6 million people have signed an online petition calling for his impeachment over Russian collusion.
        Remember “Reality Winner” who they tossed in prison?
        She supposedly leaked documents to the Intercept that proved his collusion.
        Remember Ed Snowden?
        Well, he is sitting in Russia and talks with Putin.
        Things need to be reigned in.
        The only reason your stocks are up is do to the war economy and all the bombs and drones going to rich Arabs in the Middle East, not from a strong domestic market.

      • Steve, have you forgotten the Russians getting 20% of America’s uranium for a hefty donation to the Clinton Foundation, have you not forgotten Obama’s own words “tell Vlad once I win the election I will have more flexibility”. Hillary has been a Stalinist since college and Vlad is a Stalinist. Trump is a Capitalist, see tue difference? This is how it goes – you make-up a Russian collusion story, feed it to the lying media, they push it out there like fact, then lefties believe it, and then call for impeachment over their lie..Sounds a bit IT IS ALL ONE BIG DNC/HILLARY/DEEP STATE LIE and you believe it.

      • This is ALL the Democrats, lefties, and Media, but I repeat myself do is spin all these lies to keep the focus off Trumps accomplishments in Making America Great Again!!

      • Steve I’m not sure why you feel the need to attack people and be impolite. You seem a bit confused as to who you are addressing. As to the handle opinion it is used because this news site is for readers and thinkers . I thought it was stimulating mentally to accurately describe my statements as opinions. In these cases . If I had something to hide I wouldn’t be casually speaking to you on a public forum. Have a wonderful day . Good hunting for enlightenment!

  6. “As I was reporting my story, I called a government office and talked to an official who monitors Alaska Native hunting and fishing. It turned out that he was from a small mostly Aleut village called Chignik, home to about 100 people in southwest Alaska, where the cash economy is built on commercial fishing. The locals also have to fish for themselves to offset the high cost of groceries over the winter. This year is a disaster. The fish just didn’t show up.”
    J. O’malley

    • The obvious variable between Julia’s story and Craig’s data on overall Salmon catch (by commercial nets) is the Hatchery stock of a billion fish a year.
      What we are seeing is natural runs declining while hatchery augmented stocks are increasing overall.

      • why is replacing wild fish with hatchery fish a bad thing? it’s not. it’s also not a good thing.

        it’s a choice, which when made, should be made consciously, not by default in the belief that human-induced fishery change like like human-induced climate change can be ignored.

        there are economic costs and benefits and environmental costs and benefits to human-induced-fishery change. in the Prince William Sound region, the studies indicate that at hatchery harvest return levels over 30 million pinks, Alaska starts swamping low-value pink salmon for early run Copper River sockeye salmon, the most valuable salmon in Alaska.

        is that a good trade? beats me, but someone should look at the numbers. if this is a net gain for the state, the radical changes this causes for Cordova gillnetters might be a good thing, though some of them might not like it. if this is a net loss for the state, do we really want to set things up to put Cordova gillnetters on the beach in May to lose money?

        and then there is a whole debate to be had over whether the influence of hatchery boosting affects other sockeye fisheries – Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Chignik – not to mention Chinook and coho fisheries, and what the long-term consequences of trending toward a monoculture might be as hatchery pinks stray everywhere and crossbreed with wild fish.

      • “As it has inevitably turned out with so many aspects of Alaska’s development in the pipeline era, “the key to starting up the hatcheries was the oil revenues that began flowing to the state,” said Koernig. With the newly anticipated oil money, the state formed a division of fish production and floated loans of about $9 million for development and start up of the hatchery. Later a second, even larger hatchery was added at Esther, on another part of the sound. In the last few years revenues from the five percent or so of released salmon that make it back from the ocean have totaled more than $40 million for the two hatcheries, which each have annual operating costs of around a million dollars a year. Salmon fishing in the sound now depends at least as much on hatchery fish as on the natural returns to thousands of streams and other spawning areas. No one is sure how much expansion is possible from the current releases of more than half a billion fry; it depends on the ultimate carrying capacity of the “ranch” — a sizable portion of the North Pacific. Some scientists think releases of a billion are easily possible, and 2 billion fry are not inconceivable.”
        Rolling Stone Magazine 1989

  7. Craig,

    Please tell me you sent this open letter to the NYT.

    At this point in time choosing to be willfully ignorant shouldn’t be accepted when access to factual information is so easily and readily available.

  8. Craig,
    As you continue to beat the fake news (climate change is not real) beat on the drum of local journalism, Norway is poised to deliver the first container load of frozen fish over the NWP to Asia…
    But Norwegians are not the only ones benefiting from the lack of sea ice in the Arctic.
    Many nations are active up there, but not the U.S.
    Well, after constant foreign war for 20 years, our economy is bankrupt…
    morally and financially.

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