This story has been updated with some Alaska catch information.
If “The Blob” was responsible for Alaska’s faltering salmon runs this year as some have suggested despite a lack of any real evidence, the Russians are sure to be hoping for blobs forever.
What was a problematic salmon season around the northeast rim of the Gulf of Alaska due to faltering sockeye and pink salmon returns became a problematic season for fishermen on the far side of the Bering Sea to the west for the opposite reason – too many fish.
The Russians were literally swarmed by salmon. A record Kamchatka Peninsula harvest that appears to be over 200 million fish overtaxed processing capacity.
Video from Kamchatka shows “tons of salmon are scattered on the roads, in the forests, along the tracks and on the seashore,” Alexey Doronin reported at BFM.ru, a Russian news site. “... Local residents are sure: salmon and pink salmon are thrown away so that prices do not fall on them.”
BFM and The Moscow Times both posted YouTube video of dirt roads on the Kamchatka Peninsula appearing paved with the carcasses of pink salmon that had been dumped because processors couldn’t handle the volume.
Doronin quoted Yevgeny Sivaev, editor of the Kamchatka Times newspaper, saying that “the catch is huge this year. Plants do not cope with processing or take only caviar, the rest is thrown away. But this is not so bad. A large number of fish will soon reach Vladivostok, fall into a traffic jam. Vladivostok lacks the capacity to store this particular raw material, even in frozen form. Naturally, the fish spoils very quickly. There will be huge losses. ”
The U.S. website Intrafish was reporting that as of Oct. 2,”Russia’s overall wild salmon harvests reached 659,300 metric tons, up 54 percent from the comparable period of 2016 and up 33.1 percent over volumes of the record-breaking year of 2009, according to the country’s federal fishery agency.”
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, some of the bounty was being shared on the American side of the sea as well.
The Kotzebue Sound commercial salmon fishery saw a record harvest of 695,000 chum salmon – topping a previous high that dates back to 1981, according to the state agency. About 1,200 pink salmon were also reported caught, but they were kept for personal use because there was no commercial market for those fish.
“A total of 5,642,859 pounds of chum salmon (average weight 8.1 lbs.) was sold at an average of 40 cent per pound,” Fish and Game reported, and though that price was 17 percent lower than the 48 cents per pound last year, the Sound’s 95 setnet fishermen grossed nearly $2.3 million.
The payday was 24 percent better than last year. And with an average $24,000 per permit, it was a three- to four-time better season than for setnetters in Cook Inlet where the world-famous Kenai River sockeye run faltered badly. Spawning goals were met, but the approximately 300 setnetters who went fishing on the few openings during the season caught only 283,337 sockeye, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures.
Even with the addition to the catch of 2,148 highly valuable king salmon, approximately 5,000 coho salmon, and about 20,000 of the pink salmon that swarmed the Kenai this year, the catch is expected to value only about $2 million or less than $7,000 per fisherman.
Pinks, pinks, pinks
Several hundred thousands pinks, an unexpectedly large number, made it up the Kenai in a year when most pink salmon runs around the Alaska were faltering, but the Kenai return was nothing compared to the onslaught in Russia.
About 80 percent of the salmon reported returning to the Kamchatka Peninsula were said to be pinks, which have historically peaked in even years on the west side of the Peninsula and in odd years on the east side, although east Kamchatka runs have been growing stronger in recent even years.
More than a half million metric tons of salmon were reported caught off the Kamchatka Peninsula this year. Intrafish reported that more than doubled the 2016 catch, which contained about 120 million pinks, according to historic data compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
At an average weight of 3- to 5-pounds for pinks, a half-million metric tons would represent approximately 255 to 355 million salmon. The Alaska catch this year was about 110 million salmon of all species.
Stretching for 800 miles south from Siberia, the Kamchatka Peninsula forms the western side of the Bering Sea. Salmon runs, especially pink salmon, have been on the increase there since the mid-1970s.
Scientists Alan Springer and Gus van Vliet have credited a warming North Pacific Ocean.
“Climate change in the last century was associated with spectacular growth of many wild Pacific salmon stocks in the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, apparently through bottom-up forcing linking meteorology to ocean physics, water temperature, and plankton production,” the wrote in a peer-review paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2014.
The growth of wild pink runs coupled with a boost of pinks from Alaska hatcheries has spawned an environmental ripple that has disrupted the entire ecosystem of the region, the scientists contend.
“…Pink salmon became so numerous by the 1990s that they began to dominate other species of salmon for prey resources and to exert top-down control in the open ocean ecosystem,” the wrote. “Information from long-term monitoring of seabirds in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea reveals that the sphere of influence of pink salmon is much larger than previously known. Seabirds, pink salmon, other species of salmon, and by extension other higher-order predators, are tightly linked ecologically and must be included in international management and conservation policies for sustaining all species that compete for common, finite resource pools.”
Springer said earlier this year he suspected seabird die-offs noted by the National Park Service along the Bering Seas coast in Alaska were likely linked to heavy prey consumption by pinks that left birds starving.
Russian scientists were at the time predicting a big return of pink salmon, but the number of fish that showed up has surpassed their expectations. Intrafish reported the bounty was driving salmon prices rapidly downward.
Russian pink salmon wholesale prices were down 37.5 percent from last year to 1.25 Euros per kilogram (about 66 cents per pound at current exchange rates) with chums dropping 26 percent to 2.44 Euros per kilo (about $1.29 pound.)
First wholesale prices track the price at which processors are selling the fish. Fishermen usually get about half of the wholesale price. The prices paid Russian fishermen appeared in line with the 20 to 45 cents per pound Alaska fishermen were getting for pinks this summer and the 30 to 95 cents for chums.