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.
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.
That is well above the historical, 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.
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.