After a long summer of weak, sockeye salmon returns around the northeast Gulf of Alaska, a late surge of the fish into the Copper River has provided good news for the Cordova-based Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC).
The private-nonprofit (PNP) business now has adequate numbers of eggs with which to seed a pioneering state hatchery it manages along the banks of the Gulkana River, a major clearwater tributary to the glacially turbid Copper.
Continuing the unpredictable behavior of 2018 sockeye, however, the fish didn’t show up exactly where expected. Instead of swarming the creek beside the hatchery just upriver from the near-deserted community of Paxson, about 300 miles northeast of Anchorage, the fish for a time disappeared.
As the days of August turned into September with few fish in the creek outside the hatchery, fears began to rise that the salmon might not show. But PWSAC eventually found enough of them trying to make their way into Crosswind Lake about 50 miles southwest of the hatchery to come close to the company goal of 30 million eggs for the Gulkana hatchery.
PWSAC General Manager Casey Campbell is reporting the company was able to collect 28 million eggs, primarily from Crosswind sockeye. It appears the bulk of Gulkana sockeye turned left at the West Fork instead of continuing up the Middle Fork, crossing Paxson Lake and heading for the hatchery.
Crosswind Lake – the Alaska version of a salmon farm – is at the head of Dog Creek, a tributary to the West Fork deep in the Copper Basin wilderness.
Alaska decades ago blocked the production of pen-raised salmon (although the state invests in them), but then proceeded to become the North American leader in the production of hatchery salmon.
Under state supervision, PWSAC turned Crosswind Lake into a giant sockeye nursery to raise fish for what Alaska calls an “ocean ranching” program.
“There is negligible salmon spawning habitat at Crosswind Lake, and no natural production escapement (spawning) goal has been established,” a state management plan notes. Before PWSAC started air dropping sockeye fry into the lake in the mid-1980s, Crosswind supported only a small number of sockeye.
The population has been boosted incredibly over time. With the annual stocking of sockeye up to 10 million fry per year in the 2000s, adult sockeye came swarming back to the lake at numbers ranging from 90,000 to a 2016 high of 490,000, according to PWSAC.
Enough fish were returning by the end of the 2000s, according to a 2009 report from Fish and Game, that the combined runs from Crosswind and other lakes boosted by Gulkana hatchery fish “complicates harvest and wild stock management in the Copper River District.”
Copper River sockeye are caught in a mixed-stock commercial fishery off the mouth of the river, and in mixed-stock subsistence and personal-use dipnet fisheries in the river. Fishery biologists worry that heavy fishing effort focused on large runs of hatchery fish can lead to the over-harvest of wild fish in mixed-stock fisheries.
Wild runs to the Copper River basin this year were weak. Commercial fisheries were closed early and stayed closed for most of the summer. Subsistence and dipnet fisheries were restricted, but later reopened as returns improved.
Exactly how many salmon escaped fishermen and made it to Crosswind is unclear, but big numbers there are really more of a problem than anything else because the fish have almost nowhere to spawn.
The state established what it calls a “special harvest area” to allow PWSAC to harvest fish for cost-recovery at Crosswind, but flying fish out of a remote lake is costly. So the state also gave the commercial-fisherman run company an out if it can’t make money on Crosswind sockeye.
“If PWSAC is unable to harvest the surplus hatchery-produced sockeye salmon in the special harvest area, they will, under authority of ADF&G, destroy all sockeye salmon in excess of broodstock and escapement needs,” the state management plan says. “Disposal of these fish is undesirable; however, allowing them to escape into Crosswind Lake is also problematic. Excess destroyed sockeye salmon will be left in the stream below the weir in the special harvest area.”
On occasion in years past this has been a problem, but this year the lake originally stocked with Middle Fork Gulkana sockeye has turned out to be a lifesaver for a hatchery that can’t hatch any young fish if it can’t find any eggs.
Ranching the ocean
By Alaska ocean-ranching standards, the manmade return to Crosswind, as well as the entire return driven by the unique Gulkana hatchery operation, is small potatoes. But it is now being watched more closely than in the past because of concerns about Alaska wild-salmon stocks.
Alaska started a state-run hatchery program in the 1970s with salmon runs faltering due to poor management and cold North Pacific Ocean waters that suppressed survival at sea.
“In 1974, the Alaska Legislature expanded the hatchery program, authorizing private nonprofit corporations to operate salmon hatcheries,” according to a Fish and Game history. “Alaska’s salmon hatchery program developed under this authority and was designed to supplement—not replace—sustainable natural production.”
By the end of the 1970s, Alaska hatcheries were seeding the North Pacific with 100 million young salmon a year. Production slowly ramped up at first and then began to skyrocket at the start of the 1980s. By the end of that decade, stocking was up above 1 billion young fish, and the state was feeling the burden of costs associated with raising hatchery fish.
Most state hatcheries were then turned over to the PNPs, which were able to tax commercial fishermen and operate their own “cost-recovery fisheries” to pay for hatchery operations.
To benefit commercial fishermen and the commercial fish processors, the state now allows the PNPs to collect about 2 billion salmon eggs per year, fertilize them, hatch them, grow them briefly and then dump 1.5 billion to 1.7 billion young salmon per year into Alaska coastal waters.
Only a small percentage make it back, but those 50 million to 100 million adult fish are worth upwards of $150 million per year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
About 78 percent of them are caught by commercial fishermen, according to the 2017 Annual Salmon Fisheries Assessment Annual Report, and another 17 percent are scooped up by hatcheries to cover their operating costs.
Of the 5 percent left, four percent are used for broodstock to produce more salmon, left to spawn naturally or among “unharvested returns.” About 1 percent of the fish are split between subsistence, personal-use and sport fishermen.
In the 10-year period from 2008 to 2017, the hatchery returns averaged 64 million salmon a per year, according to Fish and Game statistics. Seventy-four percent – about 47 million – were low-value pink salmon.
High-value sockeye, despite efforts to turn lakes like Crosswind into high-volume nurseries, accounted for only 4 percent of the return or 2.2 million fish. Hatchery production levels for prized coho and Chinook salmon were even less with 1.3 million coho and only 100,000 Chinook.
Chum salmon, nearly all of which are harvested in commercial fisheries accounted for the other 20 percent of the catch, and a big chunk of the value. Chums and pinks are the easiest salmon to ranch because they spend only one winter in fresh water.
Other species need to spend two or more years in a river or lake, thus the need for a nursery like Crosswind.
The 25 PNP hatcheries have, in general, been a big benefit to commercial fishermen and communities near where the hatcheries operate, but with hatchery salmon catches high and returns of wild salmon – particularly sockeye and Chinook – declining around the north Gulf Coast and in the Alaska Panhandle, questions are beginning to be raised about whether the 49th state has stumbled into that problem fishery managers sought to avoid:
There is no evidence the Gulkana hatchery started long ago at a minimal costs has harmed wild Copper River stocks, but a study conducted as part of ongoing research into the consequences of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill stumbled on evidence that at high levels of production, pink salmon from Prince William Sound hatcheries were suppressing Copper River sockeye numbers.
Copper River sockeye and king salmon are Alaska’s most valuable salmon. Lower 48 chefs pay insane amounts of money for the first-of-the season Copper catches. Whether hatchery operations played a role in this year’s weak return is unknown, but the Alaska Board of Fisheries is to discuss that issue again next week.