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salmon swarm

Salmon swarm into a Southeast Alaska river/U.S. Forest Service photo

News analysis

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.”

National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Bill Heard, who spent most of his career in Juneau, has the years 1970 through 2003 listed in a report on the “Status of Alaska’s Salmon Fisheries.”

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.

Twenty-thirteen saw a record harvest of 272 million salmon.  The 2015 harvest reached 263.5 million, the second largest on record. And 2017 came in at 224.6 million, third largest.

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.

The Cook Inlet harvest of sockeye totaled a little over 1.1 million with 815,000 harvested in the upper Inlet and 370,000 harvested in the lower.

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.

But the Alaska Board of Fisheries decided there is nothing to worry about. 

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.

29 replies »

  1. The salmon fleet keeps getting more and more efficient, instead of catching these fish In
    the bays, newer steel boat helps fishermen catch salmon out on the capes

  2. Craig,the japanese especially like the chum roe.
    I remember decades ago during a mid summer layup in the long lining season(pre IFQ about ’90 or ’91).I went for a road trip to Manley Hotsprings,and fell in with some local commercial fish wheel folks.
    They were harvesting chums from the Tanana and stripping the roe(and boxing the frozen fish for sale).
    Personally we (longline fleet) would have called the dogs #2 baitfish, but hey whatever floats somebodies boat.
    The roe of course was sent to The Land of The Rising Sun

    dave Mc

    • As someone who cures and loves salmon roe Dave, my experience is that the chum roe is easiest to get clean from the skeins with the least breakage. Thus the chum roe is favored because of economics IMO. I’ve not the skill that can distinguish the taste difference between say chum and king roe and I’ve not tried pink roe. Perhaps a good wine taster could discern the difference.
      The roe used to be shipped to Japan in egg boxes before curing (just gravity removing much of the moisture). I suspect it’s done differently today. I remember hearing that only women worked in the egg-room as they were easier on the product.

      • Interesting fact ,Bill whoever told you only women work with the row was telling stories. I worked in an egg room. Long enough to be apprenticed to the Japanese who were shipped in to over see the process very particular they were . In this cannery Only Japanese were allowed to be involved with brining process , mixing chemical, temperature, stirring and timing was very important to them . I’m not sure why the Japanese chose me to help them and eventually work the brining myself when they were not right there . The Japanese oversers couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English but through pointing and numbers taught me their trade . I was paid extra to be their assistant . Aprx 50 -75 plus Americans were involved with the arranging sorting and packing of the row in special boxes . Men and women 30/70 aprx . Large cannery . Shocking amount of row . Roughly over 10,000 pounds many days . In short men were there .

      • That was the story told me in early 90s at North Pacific Processors in Cordova by a gillnetter who worked some there at that time. I doubt this guy was telling stories but that this was the situation at this particular processor at that time.
        Were you involved when the roe was packed in those egg boxes and I forget what the product was called at that time.

      • Yes I was involved when the row was packed in the egg boxes . As we’re about 70 other men and women. The specific people were the same every day . Occurred early and mid 90s . It was a blast .

  3. Are we to expect a higher yearly total harvest numbers of salmon? Are we allowing fish managers to experiment with ocean capacities? At what point will we not have yearly increases in total number of salmon harvested? Meaning it has to stabilize at some point,to be the most productive and predictable.

    • Too many variables, Al. Were all the variables to “stabilize” the salmon numbers might follow. Just sea temperatures alone don’t seem to be stabilizing.
      As I recall the big argument for hatcheries was to be able to more stabilize the notorious ups and downs of the salmon returns. World is full of good intentions, it seems.

      • When the state was contemplating hatcheries and sold the idea it could possible create a more stable fishery, this would have been true if the state run it (possible). Instead the state gave it to the industry and capitalism is never satisfied with break even. Who would have ever thought capitalism is satisfied “even steven”? LOL

      • The FRED division originally played with several hatcheries and eventually sold/gave them away to the aquaculture associations. It must have become too vulnerable for government to continue but the private sector is always wanting in on govt. issues that might turn a dollar.
        Like you say, capitalism is hard to satisfy.

  4. I was doing a job on Whidbey Island last month and went to the Haggen Grocery with my brother after work. He was buying some rock fish for dinner and I pointed to a nice fillet of ‘Wild Alaskan Caught Keta’ salmon for $24/lb to him. He reminded me that he doesn’t like salmon (weirdo). I pointed again to the fillet and told him to look closely at it. He stared for a second and exclaimed ‘That’s a dog!! Their selling chums for $24!!’
    Pretty wild what people are happy to eat when their fish of choice is unavailable – just rebrand it. I really hope that doesn’t happen up here…

    • Jack: bright chum, before they start to lose fat, are pretty tasty fish. the Japanese certainly like them. that said, $24 a pound for just about any salmon has me going yi, yi, yi.

      • Many people, including myself, prefer smoked Keta over any other smoked salmon. Hard to find it, though. A company in the interior used to process lots of it and I never tasted better. I hope it is still in business.

      • Yes, Interior Fish Processors are still smoking Keta, the best. Virgil Umphenour is the owner.

      • Yeah, if I catch one in the ocean, I’ll keep it and eat it. Just thought that it was humorous to see the price on that stuff. Same goes with pinks out of the ocean – if I catch one, I’ll bring it home… or use it for halibut bait!

      • Jack: i hope those are subsistence humpies because if they’re sport caught, it’s illegal to use them for bait.

        i think, though you better check, that the rule does not apply to subsistence catch. i know that the state specifically says you can use personal-use salmon for bait.

        and, of course, you’re perfectly legal if you go buy some humpies from a processor. you can do anything you want with those.

        aren’t Alaska fishing regulations fun?

      • Careful Jack, I believe sport caught salmon cannot be used for bait (head, etc. OK).
        I remember years ago a commercial halibut boat paid $1/lb for 1000 lbs of sockeye to use for bait. Very good halibut bait. Also remember being asked by F & G officer, when asked about a halibut on board, if the bait (sockeye) was sport caught (of course not).

      • This is just a wanton waste issue for a public resource-without it imagine the amount of fish and game that would be wasted. And the idea of being able to use purchased pinks is similar to a consumer being allowed to do whatever he wants with the fillet mignon he purchases @ Safeway.
        What’s troubling here is that Jack does his fishing with charter folks which suggests that they are allowing the use of sport caught humpies (for bait). Frankly, I doubt anyone gets upset enough about a few pinks used in this way but the literal law could apply. Charter folks doing this seems industrial strength stoopid, to me.

      • Bill, good points. You can use purchased fish, personal use, and subsistence fish for bait. But you can not used purchased big game (Bartered), or subsistence big game for bait. You can strip roe from fish and throw the rest away, You can do the most horrendous job of filleting a fish.Keep the little slab of filet and throw the rest away. But leave 10lbs of big game meat in the field,or use some of your big meat for bait that had spoiled and you’ll make the headlines if charged.

      • Bill,
        On a side note, I was told by a local that a wildlife trooper investigating “dirty” bait stations (for commercial bear hunting) in the Skwentna area found whole salmon tossed on top of dog food at several bait stations this fall.
        I do not think he could prove who exactly had done this, but you can see salmon do get wasted in various forms from baiting to rotting in deep freezers throughout the state.

      • What you are speaking of is done regularly with so-called freezer burned fish and game. As one who was given much of it, when I kept a dogteam, I also know that sometimes the wife gives away the husbands game because she doesn’t like it. Heheh!
        Anyway, once these fish are processed it’s difficult to say how they were acquired and few people process their salmon whole. I do know that some freeze their king salmon whole and steak them out later with band saw.
        I would think that whole salmon would make good bear bait. And legal if personal use, too. My favorite bear bait story is where popcorn is used and the bears sit there and eat that popped corn one at a time-I would like to see that sometime.

      • For the record: the only time that I used salmon for bait was in BC where I was sturgeon fishing. I believe that the guide purchased them from a local processor. Sorry for the poor attempt at pink humor. Also, for the record: I don’t exclusively fish via charter or guide. In fact, I have only used charter or guided businesses 4 times in the past 5 years. I’ve always been a that guy hiking up small streams with my waders on searching for trout. As far as Bill’s slight insinuation of charters willingly break the law, I have never had a guide seen a guide break any F&W law – willingly or unwillingly (granted, I’m not a F&W officer), however, the guides and charters that I have used spend the time to educate their clients about AK Wildlife law nuances (this is a great conversation starter with fellow outdoorspeople). I wish that I could hire guides and charters more often, I feel that a good guide / charter is well worth the $ – I just wish that I had more ability to do this more often. But, as my dad would tell me: ‘wish in 1 hand and crap in the other and see which one fills up 1st’…

        Cheers folks!

      • Thanks for setting the record straight, Jack. And this is the honor system. Heheh!
        I did notice your comment was “if I caught one” and not “when I caught one.” I missed the attempt at humor, totally.

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