This might have been a slightly off-year for Alaska salmon fisheries when judged by the bounty 49th state residents have come to expect in modern times, but a historical analysis of harvests shows it was simply the lower end of a range that has made this decade the most salmon-fruitful in recorded history.
Forget the New York Times’ suggestion Alaska salmon runs are fading and “scientists, who haven’t had time to study the problem, are cautious about naming causes. But many suspect it has to do with a recent period of warmer ocean temperatures.”
The only words for that description are “fake news.” If there is a scientist who believes global warming has reduced Alaska salmon returns to date, he or she simply hasn’t examined the numbers.
So far into the new millennium, climate change has been nothing but good for Alaska salmon. That could change. Salmon are adapted to cool not tropical waters. There is a point at which a warming ocean is going to turn against them.
But so far, it’s been nothing but positive.
The five-year average salmon harvest is over 200 million fish per year. Neither the state, nor the territory, ever saw anything remotely like this before. If the pattern established from 2010 to 2018 continues – despite a strange oscillation in the size of returns – Alaska is destined to round out four decades of steadily and dramatically increasing salmon harvests.
Here is where things stand now:
- 2010 to present – an annual, average harvest of 181 million.
- The 2000s, a 167.4 million per year average.
- The 1990s, a 157.5 million average.
- The 1980s, a 122.4 million average.
Hard to believe
If you’re skeptical, you can find the 2003 to 2012 harvests cataloged in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2013 report on “Recent Trends in Alaska Salmon Value and Implications for Hatchery Production.”
The data for the years 2010 to 2018 is not quite as easy to find, although it is not a problem to Google the state harvest summaries for 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Fish and Game promoted them all.
“Record wild salmon harvests like these are a testament to Alaska’s sound, science-based management, the professionalism of ADF&G’s staff, and thoughtful stakeholder engagement,” Forrest Bowers, Deputy Director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries, proclaimed in a 2017 press release.
The state did not talk up the comparatively weaker years, but in the context of Alaska history back to 1880s, every year in the 2010s saw phenomenal returns.
When all was said and done, the final harvest this year was 114.5 million. In what some consider the heyday of the Alaska salmon fishery in the 1930s, there was only one year – 1936 – that bettered that catch.
The 10-year average for those years of the “good old days” of the ’30s? Ninety-one million salmon.
Still, compared to the decades before and after, the 1930s were indeed good times for Alaska fishermen. Here’s a decade by decade by decade breakdown from 1890 on.
More, more, more and less
- The 1890s, 8.5 million per year average.
- The 1900s, 31 million average.
- The 1910s, 64 million average.
- The 1920s, 70 million average.
- The 1930s, 91 million average.
- The 1940s, 78 million average.
- The 1950s, 41.4 million average.
- The 1960s, 51 million average.
- The 1970s, 49 million average.
Retired Fish and Game biologist Larry Edfelt, who compiled a “Statistical History of Alaska Salmon Catches” in 1973, noted that harvests were generally a simple function of fishing effort up until about 1915.
After that date, he wrote, “fishery agents became concerned with the onset of depletion and began thinking of the resource in terms of variable maximum productivity.Salmon catches peaked during the period 1935-1945, followed by a drastic
decline in certain major fisheries during the 1950’s. ”
Edfelt’s report tabulates catches from 1878 to 1971 by year, region and species.
The numbers there provide some perspective on the red (sockeye) salmon returns to Cook Inlet and the Copper River, both of which were considered commercial fishing disasters this year.
That was only about 30 percent of the most recent 10-year average, but a bonanza compared to the Copper River, where the sockeye catch barely topped 44,000. That catch was but 3 percent of the 10-year average of 1.29 million.
The previous record low harvest for the Copper was 112,000 in 1936. It is, however, worth noting that in those days almost no one was paying attention to how many salmon escaped upstream to spawn. The state now manages for an escapement of 360,000 to 750,000 sockeye into the Copper.
More than 700,000 made it this year. There is little doubt that in earlier times several hundred thousand of those, or more, would have been caught, thus boosting the 2018 harvest out of the historical cellar.
Cook Inlet, meanwhile, has seen harvests of 1.1 million or smaller before. The historic sockeye harvest, according to the data compiled by Edfelt, didn’t top 1.1. million until 1911 and in 17 of the years that followed it failed to meet that mark.
The average sockeye harvest for the 1950s in the Inlet was only 1.3 million, and it fell to 1.2 million in the 1960s.
These were years, retired state commercial fishery biologist Ken Tarbox notes, when the Kenai River, the largest sockeye producer in the Inlet, was also managed for spawning escapements – the number of fish escaping to spawn – of a few hundred thousand or fewer sockeye.
The escapement of late-run sockeye to the Kenai this year was just over 1 million. If commercial fishermen had been allowed to catch 600,000 to 700,000 of those fish, the Inlet catch would have risen to 1.7 to 1.8 million fish – 40 to 45 percent above the combined average for the ’50s and ’60s.
Compared to the rest of the years since the 1980s, 2018 was not a great year for Cook Inlet sockeye, but with an estimated total return of 3.1 million sockeye, it wasn’t the disaster some would like to believe, either.
Spawning goals were met or exceeded in most streams, and the restrictions placed on commercial fishing in the Inlet to protect sockeye allowed a lot of silver (coho) salmon to escape into Susitna River tributaries.
“Coho salmon assessments on all Upper Cook Inlet systems were either above or within their escapement goals in 2018,” Fish and Game reported, and anglers reported great fishing almost everywhere.
Even bad is good
And overall, the not-so-good, statewide season of 2018 was better than 14 of 48 years back to 1970, better than any year in the ’70s, almost twice as good as any year in the ’60s, a full twice as good as any year in the 1940s, better than all but one year in the 1930s, better than all years in the 1920s, and way better than any year back to 1878.
This should not come as a big surprise.
Scientists Greg Ruggerone and James Irvine this year reported in a peer-reviewed paper in “Marine and Coastal Fisheries: Dynamics, Management, and Ecosystem Science” that their research has led to the conclusion the North Pacific Ocean today contains more salmon than at any time in history.
Some of this is natural, they said, observing that “following an initial peak during 1934–1943, abundances were low until the 1977 regime shift (to warm waters) benefited each species.”
And some of it is manmade.
“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,” they wrote. “Alaska generated 68 percent and 95 percent of hatchery pink salmon and sockeye salmon, respectively, while Japan produced
75 percent of hatchery chum salmon.
“Salmon abundance in large areas of Alaska (Prince William Sound and Southeast
Alaska), Russia (Sakhalin and Kuril islands), Japan, and South Korea are dominated by hatchery salmon. During 1990–2015, hatchery salmon represented approximately 40 percent of the total biomass of adult and immature salmon in the ocean. Density-dependent effects are apparent, and carrying capacity may have been reached in recent decades, but interaction effects between hatchery- and natural-origin salmon are difficult to quantify, in part because these fish are rarely separated in catch and escapement statistics.”
Ruggerone and Irvine suspect that in some areas large numbers of hatchery fish are now suppressing wild fish numbers, and a study of the Exxon Valdez oil spill last year stumbled on evidence that the production of large numbers of pinks in Prince William Sound drives down returns of sockeye to the Copper River.
Some questioned the decision, but the state has for almost 40 years now gambled on generating ever bigger salmon runs, and so far the gamble is paying off.
Correction: Due to a math error, an early version of this story inflated the 1930s, annual average salmon harvest by about 17 million fish.