The annual report from the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission is out and the United States, led by Alaska, is the 2017 world leader in hatchery-salmon ranching.
Almost 1.9 billion immature salmon stormed out of U.S. hatcheries into the Pacific last year, according to the report. That was about 100 million more than were turned loose by the Japanese, who have been farming salmon in this manner since the 1950s.
The U.S. ran hatcheries then, too, but it was a small potatoes business. Only about 17 million fish were released from the U.S. in 1952 with Japanese production already 15 times that.
U.S. production remained below 200 million young fish per year up until Alaska started ramping up its hatchery program in the mid-1970s, according to Commission figures.
By that time, Japan was well on its way to raising more than 1 billion young fish per year, and the Russians had jumped into the ranching business to the tune of 800 million to 900 million young fish per year.
Japanese production, which is primarily chum salmon, peaked at 2.2 billion in 1991 amid indications fry-to-adult survival rates were falling, an apparent sign that too many fish were being produced.
The country began easing hatchery production down to 2 billion young fish per year by the start of the new millennium and has since backed off even farther. The reported 2017 release of 1.76 billion is the smallest for Japan since 1980.
Having decided that peak ocean production has been reached, the Japanese are now pen-raising salmon and starting a push toward land-based salmon “bluehouses” inside which they can raise salmon in clean, filtered water.
The Japanese are looking to both increase production and replace some of the imported farmed salmon that now dominates the country’s sushi business. Thanks to the Norwegians, salmon in 2017 ranked as the favorite fish at Japanese conveyor-belt sushi restaurants for the sixth year in a row.
While Alaskans love wild salmon, the Japanese long had issues with using it to make sushi and for good reason. Wild salmon are hosts for tapeworms that can infect humans.
“The salmon people in Japan were used to eating had parasites, so they always cooked it,” Jiang said. Cooking salmon , or thoroughly freezing it, kills the worms that can hide unseen curled up in the flesh of salmon, but the Japanese prefer fresh fish for sushi.
The Norwegians brought farmed salmon, which do not host worms, to Japan and radically changed the way the Japanese eat sushi. The country last year imported about 110 million pounds of farmed salmon, now primarily from Chile, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Farmers versus ranchers
While the Norwegians were growing their fjord-based business built around pen-raised salmon from a less than $1 billion year industry in 1980 to a nearly $7 billion industry today, Alaska was leading the push to farm the ocean first through FRED, the Fisheries Rehabilitation and Enhancement Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and eventually through a group of private, non-profit (PNP) aquaculture associations funded by commercial fishermen.
State voters in the late 1970s first approved tens of millions of dollars in bonds to build hatcheries. By the late 1980s, however, the Legislature had discovered how costly hatcheries are to operate and ordered FRED to “enter into agreements with the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association, and the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association to provide assistance in the operation of Tutka Bay, Cannery Creek and Kitoi Bay Hatcheries, respectively, on a cooperative basis,” according to budget documents from that times.
Most state hatcheries were later turned over to the PNPs.
But before that happened, the PNPs and FRED (which was eventually eliminated as a Fish and Game division to cut costs) grew Alaska hatchery salmon production from fry releases of 11 million in 1975 to nearly 1.8 billion by 2014, according to the state’s latest Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Report.
Production was down to about 1.6 billion fry last year, but still dwarfs the output of the rest of the West Coast combined. The Anadromous Fish Commission report indicated Alaska now releases more than five times as many fish as the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California combined, and about two and a half times as many as the combined total of those states and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The big dumps of young salmon have become big business in the north.
“In 2017, the commercial fleet caught about 47 million hatchery-produced salmon worth an estimated $331 million in first wholesale value,” according to the states’ enhancement report. “Hatchery fish contributed 21 percent of the statewide commercial salmon harvest, which is the lowest percentage of hatchery fish in the harvest since 1995.”
By Norwegians standards, the value of the ranching business might not seem that high, but by global, salmon-farming standards the salmon production of both wild and hatchery fish in Alaska isn’t that big either.
Seventy-five percent of the salmon the world now eats are pen-raised, and that percentage continues to creep ever higher.
Given the competition from farmers, Alaska’s salmon ranchers believe they need hatcheries now more than ever to survive. When the Alaska Board of Fisheries earlier this month held a hearing to consider a proposal to order a hold on expanding pink salmon production in Prince William Sound, commercial fishermen turned out in force to pressure the Board to allow a Valdez pink salmon hatchery to increase its egg take by another 10 million.
They carried the day, but state fisheries biologist admit they need to know more about hatchery fry interactions with young, wild fish.
The bulk of Alaska’s pink salmon hatchery production is in the Sound, and a study looking for lingering damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill last year reported finding instead damage to wild fish from hatchery fish.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns,” said the peer-review study led by Eric Ward of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “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 return.
“We do not know if possible deleterious interactions between hatchery pink salmon and wild sockeye salmon in this study are from predation or competition, or whether they occur in nearshore or offshore areas. Pink salmon feeding may cause a general depletion of prey availability that could impact sockeye salmon without tight spatial overlap of these two species. In this regard, the apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the NE Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS in particular.”
The study looked only at sockeye in the Sound and Copper River, but raised question as to whether PWS salmon could be a factor in the decline of Cook Inlet sockeye. Young fish ride the Alaska Coastal Current north along the coast from the Sound into a rich mixing zone around the Barren Islands off the mouth of the Inlet where many species of fish congregate.
After the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act in 1976 and the 1978 end of high-seas drift gillnetting by Japanese, Korean and other fishermen working in what was to become the 200-mile economic zone off the Alaska coast, sockeye returns to Cook Inlet skyrocketed.
At the same time Inlet runs were building, Sound production of hatchery salmon, primarily pinks was steadily going up. It went over 1 billion fry in 1985 and over 1.5 billion fry in 1988, according to state data.
The Cook Inlet sockeye catch averaged 5.2 million for the 10 years from 1985 to 1994, the period when the Sound hatcheries were settling into full production. Since 1995, only the two biggest Inlet catches – 5.24 million in 2005 and 5.28 million in 2011 – come anywhere near the old, 10-year average.
Meanwhile, the 10-year average harvest itself, according to Fish and Game, was down to 3.45 million by 2011 and continuing to fall. It had dropped to 2.9 million for the 2007-2016 period, according to Fish and Game.
The declines came even as massive state salmon catches indicated favorable ocean conditions. The three biggest harvests of salmon in state history came in 2013, 2015 and 2017. The average, pink-dominated, annual, statewide harvest for 2013 to 2018 is close to 205 million fish.
State fishery managers once considered an annual harvest of half that a good year. But while Alaska salmon have been flourishing, Cook Inlet sockeye have not.
The then-lowest harvest in 10 years, a catch of 1.8 million, came in 2017, according to Fish and Game. That was followed by the commercial disaster of this season with a catch of only about 800,000 sockeye.
As state fisheries researcher Bill Templin pointed out to the Board when it was considering the hatchery proposal, correlation is not causation. But he admitted state fishery biologists know very little about interactions between young pink salmon fry and sockeye smolt once they go to sea.
And correlation is, in the world of science, cause for investigation because it might lead to causation. Templin admitted he’d like to know a lot more, but state research funds are limited.