Before a room packed with commercial fishermen angry they might lose profits from catches of hatchery salmon, the Alaska Board of Fisheries on Tuesday turned back a proposal to cap or roll back the state’s industrial aquaculture business.
The 5-2 vote came after Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientist Bill Templin walked board members through an 84-screen Powerpoint presentation explaining the complexities of salmon genetics and even more so the impenetrable tangle that is the ecosystem of the North Pacific Ocean.
State biologists, Templin said, can’t say what will happen once fish disappear into the big black box of the Pacific, and thus can’t say whether adding ever more hatchery pink salmon to the ocean will harm wild fish. They know there is a limit to the carrying of the marine environment, but they don’t know what the limit.
Neither can they say to what extent hundreds of millions of hatchery pink salmon swarming north out of Prince William Sound on the Alaska Coastal Current and lesser numbers of sockeye smolt flooding west from Cook Inlet compete for food in a huge and ecologically productive mixing zone in the gut of the Gulf of Alaska.
The pertinent question that went unanswered as the meeting ended was voiced by the Board’s Israel Payton, who grew up in the remote Yentna River community of Skwentna.
Noting that the state’s hatchery program was begun in the 1970s to rehabilitate the state’s faltering salmon runs, he wanted to know at what level of hatchery production that rehabilitation would be complete.
Ocean-ranched salmon – or what Alaska commercial fishermen prefer to call “wild-caught” fish in an effort to avoid being cast as fish farmers – have been making up an increasingly larger and larger segment of the annual harvest since the late 1980s.
“Private, no-profit (PNP) hatcheries (now) account for a third of the commercial harvest,” Templin noted. As a result, big money is involved.
An economic mainstay
“In 2017, the commercial fleet caught about 47 million hatchery-produced salmon worth an estimated $331 million in first wholesale value,” according to Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report. And 2017 was not the best year for hatcheries.
“Hatchery fish contributed 21 percent of the statewide commercial salmon harvest, which is the lowest percentage of hatchery fish in the harvest since 1995, and due largely to an extraordinary wild stock harvest that was the third highest in Alaska history,” the report said.
The hatchery return for 2018 is expected to be back up in percentage but down in fish in a year in which runs of sockeye salmon, one of the state’s most valuable fish, faltered around the north and east Gulf of Alaska coast.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association has suggested failing sockeye runs on the Kenai, Copper and other rivers are a sign of wild fish losing out in the competition with the hatchery salmon – primarily pinks – raised in Prince William Sound (PWS).
A study of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill found “all (Copper River) sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns. While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.”
There is no evidence to indicate those hatcheries are influencing Cook Inlet sockeye returns, but there is a correlation between the numbers of pink salmon in the Sound and sockeye in the Inlet.
As the Sound’s, hatchery-boosted pink salmon production has climbed since the 1980s, Cook Inlet production has fallen.
“Commercial harvests of sockeye salmon were about 4.5 million fish in the 1980s, 4.1 million fish in the 1990s, and 3.6 million fish since 2000,” a state study reported in 2006. The 10-year average is now down to 2.8 million.
Average, 10-year PWS pink salmon returns that historically averaged about 15 million fish per year were boosted to 31 million in the 1990s, climbed to 44 million in the 2000s and have remained near 37 million since.
Several studies have suggested that fast-growing pink salmon, which are evolutionarily designed to spend only a year at sea growing from inch-long fry to 18- to 25-inch fish, enjoy a competitive advantage over other species.
As Templin noted in his Powerpoint, and as all scientists know, “correlation is not causation.” The interactions between juvenile salmon from the Inlet, the Sound, and to some extent Kodiak Island and Chignik remain an unknown.
But the value of the hatchery fish is well documented, and both commercial fishermen and processors have lobbied hard against any reduction in hatchery stocking efforts. Ageless wonder Sen. Clem Tillion from Halibut Cove, Alaska’s “fisheries czar” under the late Gov. Wally Hickel, was at the hearing to back the hatcheries along with hatchery managers from across the state.
“This idea that we’re over-stressing the North Pacific? What we’re doing is chicken feed.”
He pointed to unknown North Korean hatchery production and high Russian production as the possible cause if the Pacific is over-stressed, although neither country would be involved if the real issue is with near-shore competition in the Alaska Coastal Current running from Southeast Alaska past the Sound around Kodiak and on to the Bering Sea.
Hatchery advocates called the KRSA proposal a thinly veiled attack on commercial fishermen and pointed to more than 1,000 comments to the Board in favor of hatcheries verses less than 100 opposed.
The accusation was a mischaracterization with a grain of truth.
At its root, the Alaska hatchery issue is an argument between technocrats, who think man can improve on anything done by nature, and naturalists, who would prefer to let nature function naturally.
A debate almost identical to the one in Alaska is now raging in Scotland where the only difference is that the salmon in question are farmed in pens instead of being ranched into the seas. As salmon farming has exploded in Scotland, wild Atlantic salmon returns have gone down.
“Pro-aquaculture interests, such as the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organization (SSPO)….contend that “any potential impacts on wild fish are not understood, and the science is particularly lacking for Scotland,” NPR reported.
While salmon advocates have called for “moratoriums on fish farm expansions until the environmental impacts are better understood,” government reports have not backed that idea, SSPO General Manager David Sandison told NPR.
A “parliamentary committee is expected to publish its findings (on this issue) sometime this fall, but the release of those findings has already been delayed several times, likely because of the challenge of reconciling environmental and economic interests,” wrote NPR’s Eileen Guo.
The economics have historically tilted these arguments over wild versus farmed in favor of the technocrats.
The buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains the way the salmon still roam the sea are long gone. They were replaced first by free-ranged livestock (the equivalent of hatchery fish) and then by fields of wheat and corn that, in large part, serve to grow cattle in feed lots, the now dominant source of beef.
An estimated 60 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is used to feed livestock these days. But there are still places where farmers ranch cows as Alaskans ranch salmon. There is nowhere left in America where anyone hunts bison for sale in the market or, for that matter, hunts ducks or geese or deer or Dall sheep in a country where market hunting once flourished.
It was brought to an end by President Theodore Roosevelt after he was heavily lobbied by sport hunters who witnessed the decimation of moose, caribou and sheep populations for profit.
Alaska was like any other part of the country in that regard more than a century ago.
Roosevelt’s forestry chief, Gifford Pinchot, sent a young forester named William A. Langille to the Kenai Peninsula in 1904 to investigate reports that market hunters were over hunting moose, caribou and Dall sheep populations,” according to a history of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Langille recommended creation of the Chugach National Forest, which once “extended from the Copper River on the east to Cook Inlet on the west, to Kachemak Bay on the south, and included all the Chugach Mountains to the north,” according to the history.
“Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, hunters and conservationists continued to press Congress to designate part of this land specifically as a wildlife preserve, without logging, mining and other forms of development. Congress finally recognized these voices, and a second President Roosevelt — FDR — signed the enabling legislation for the Kenai National Moose Range on Dec. 16, 1941, just nine days after Pearl Harbor.”
The damage done to wildlife populations by over hunting was obvious. The fishery issue now facing the state of Alaska is a whole lot more complicated.
Though the Board refused to address it Tuesday, some Board members said later it is obvious there is a need to cap hatchery production at some level, and even most hatchery supporters concede there is a limit to the carrying capacity of the North Pacific.
It remains to be seen whether the Fish Board is willing to address that issue.
Following on the success of the Prince William Aquaculture Association and similar PNP hatcheries in Southeast Alaska and on Kodiak Island, other communities and or regions in Alaska want to jump into the hatchery game.
Hatcheries seem to many fishermen the magic bullet, and opposition in Alaska has so far been muted.
But there was no one at the Fish Board meeting on Tuesday Standing for Salmon, or at least Standing for Wild Salmon. The only standing came when Tillion made his plea for continuing hatchery expansion. He got a standing ovation.
This story is revised from an earlier version which did not note the debate in Scotland over conflicts between hatchery fish and wild fish.