Chinook salmon runs in Upper Cook Inlet have taken a depressing turn back to the future with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game this week announcing the closure of May, June and early-July fisheries for the state’s most-prized salmon.
The news comes as another blow for sport fishing guides and lodges from Wasilla north to Talkeetna on the George Parks Highway and west to Skwentna on the Yentna River in part because of a bad run last year.
But more so because this isn’t supposed to be happening in the modern days of salmon management. When runs faltered in the 1970s, fisheries biologists were confident they knew why: overharvest and a cold ocean. Now, the Chinook crash is a mystery.
“I came into this sideshow in 1974 or ’75,” said Kevin Delaney, a former director of the Division of Sport Fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who remembers Chinook returns to the Deshka River in the Susitna Valley in the “low thousands,” a tenth of the peak the runs would reach in the early 2000s.
But in the mid-’70s, foreign fishing fleets were active just off the Alaska coast, fishing on salmon stocks which were probably already in a depressed state.
“Prior to 1973 a very limited sport and commercial fishery was allowed in some areas of Upper Cook Inlet,” it adds, but by 1973 all sport and commercial fisheries were closed, and the Alaska Congressional delegation was pushing hard in Washington, D.C. to get federal officials to do something about foreign offshore harvests.
They were part of a fleet of more than 630 foreign vessels then working the state’s coast. High seas fishermen were believed to be harvesting as much as 80 percent of some Alaska salmon stocks, and “a number of Alaskan salmon stocks continued to decline,” says the official state history of “The Commercial Fishery in Alaska.”
“International interceptions of North American salmon stocks became a public issue and management conflicts increased. In 1976, Congress
adopted the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act. This legislation extended U.S. control of its fishery resources from three miles offshore to 200 miles offshore.”
After the passage of what was known widely and simply as the 200-mile limit, foreign fleets were pushed out, the interception of Alaska salmon dropped, and many runs – including Cook Inlet Chinook – began to rebound quickly.
That, coupled to a warming North Pacific Ocean, led to big increases in Alaska salmon returns of all species.
By 1979, enough kings were returning to the Susitna River and its tributaries at the head of Cook Inlet that the Board of Fisheries opened limited, quota-controlled fisheries on four Susitna tributaries and the Little Susitna River.
The Valley – as Alaskans generally refer to a 25,000-square-mile area north of Anchorage squeezed between the Alaska, Talkeetna and Chugach mountains ranges – was about to enter a period of decades of bounty.
The biggest and least common of Alaska salmon, Chinook are a fish known widely in Alaska simply as “king salmon.”
For sport fishing businesses that developed in The Valley from the late 1970s on, kings have been the biggest tourist draw, and the one salmon run that doesn’t leave angling interests at the mercy of state fisheries managers and the gillnets of the commercial fishermen who swarm the Inlet in late June, July and early August.
Commercial fisheries that harvest the vast majority of Inlet salmon generally don’t begin until the bulk of Susitna Chinook are already in-river, although there was a small, commercial setnet fishery for kings opened near the mouth of the Susitna in 1985 when king returns were so robust anglers couldn’t catch the entire allowable harvest.
“We’ll be the first to go if there are not enough fish,” he said. “We’re not just trying to get our foot in the door and grow.”
The fishery hung on for three decades even as Chinook returns to the Susitna began to weaken early in this decade and finally crashed. The fishery which once had a harvest goal of 10,000 fish a year caught only 2,121 Chinook in 2017.
It was closed last year along with the Susitna drainage sport fisheries. It will remain closed this year. Some expect it could become a footnote in history in a part of Alaska where the salmon economy appears destined to begin a slow transition from commercial fishing to tourism.
When salmon runs are small and there are only a limited number of fish available to be caught, economists say there is significantly more money to be made in selling tourists the opportunity to fish than in netting salmon to ship south to the Lower 48 for sale in a market where prices are now held down by bountiful supplies of farmed fish.
But for anyone to make any money, there have to be at least some salmon available for people to catch. Why there aren’t is now the subject of considerable debate.
Alaska fisheries habitat remains largely pristine. There are no dams threatening the fish as in the Pacific Northwest, and the footprint of development in the vast Susitna drainage remains small.
Given these things, fisheries managers long assumed that as long as they ensured salmon streams met spawning goals everything would be fine, and everything was fine just as long as it was fine.
“You’d expect to see two to three (adult fish) return per spawner,” Tom Vania regional fisheries management coordinator for the state’s Sport Fish Division said Tuesday, “but we’re only seeing one.”
That’s enough to replenish runs, but not enough to provide a harvestable surplus of salmon.
Return-per-spawner rates historically vary greatly from year to year. Returns for early run kings on the heavily studied Kenai River have ranged from more than six-to-one to less than a half-to-one over the last 40 years.
Rates below one are worrisome, but Chinook runs are compromised of adults from various age classes so a bad year for three-year-old fish can sometimes be offset by a good year for four-year-old fish or five-year-old fish returning at the same time.
If, of course, there are old fish.
“The kings are coming back at younger ages,” Vania added. “Something’s telling them, ‘You better come back early.”’
What and why?
No one knows why. No one has a clue as to what tells a salmon to spend only one year at sea or stay for three or more. And that’s just one among dozens of unanswered questions about the species.
“We’ve been asking the ‘why’ questions for how long now?” Vania asked. “There are so many factors involved. It’s kind of hard to try to isolate those.”
King salmon numbers have been generally declining statewide since the beginning of the decade. Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell pushed a king salmon research initiative as far back as 2012.
Parnell’s successor, now former Gov. Bill Walker, cut the funding for the program in 2015. Walker was more interested in increasing commercial harvests of sockeye, which return to the Inlet by the millions, than in solving the riddle of the kings, which return by the tens of thousands.
Still, some research continued within Fish and Game. Primarily focused on the Chinook runs of the Panhandle, it had king salmon implications statewide.
Research biologist Ed Jones told a Chinook symposium in Sitka in May that it now appears in-river reproduction is adequate, but once young fish hit the sea, they don’t seem to survive for long.
“They’re dying at sea,” Sitka’s KCAW reported him saying. “It’s anecdotal in some cases, and in other cases you combine some of the work that’s done on the Yukon with what we’re doing, and it’s basically pinned it down to their first three months at sea that we’re losing 99 percent of our smolt to marine mortality.”
Some have tried to blame a warm-water phenomenon called The Blob for the weak returns, but the Chinook decline predates the The Blob, and the water itself has not been hot enough to kill young fish. It’s effect comes through alteration of the food web, which could make it harder for young Chinook to find the food they need to survive, could put them at a disadvantage in the competition with other salmon for food, or could expose them to greater predation.
In the North Pacific of today, researchers Greg Ruggerone from Seattle and Jennifer Nielsen have suggested fast-growing, short-lived pinks that blossom from fingerlings to 3.5- to 8-pound fish in only about a year and a half enjoy a competitive advantage over sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon that spend more time at sea.
In a peer-reviewed paper published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries – Dynamics, Management and Ecosystem Science in April, Ruggerone and scientitist Jim Irvine from Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, estimated that pink salmon now account for 67 percent of the adult salmon in the North Pacific and 48 percent of the salmon biomass.
The two scientists also fingered growing production of hatchery ranched salmon from Alaska, Russia and South Korea as a potential problem for wild fish and suggested the hatchery fish might play a role in Chinook declines.
Meanwhile, Alaska hatchery manager Steve Reifenstuhl underlined the importance of predation after an unexpected bounty of chum salmon showed up at a new Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association hatchery at Crawfish Inlet south of Sitka this summer.
Community radio station KFSK reported the big return was likely due to predators being unaware of the new hatchery as a food source.
“Obviously to have good survival the fry have to escape the near-shore area where there is normally tremendous mortality,” Reifenstuhl told reporter Joe Viechnicki in September. “And secondly there’s gotta be food in the ocean for them when they spend the next two and three years out in the North Pacific. So my guess is both those environments were in their favor for these fish that came back this year.”
Far to the north of the Panhandle, some have suggested predator massing off the mouth of Cook Inlet could be a threat to out-migrant salmon from the Susitna, Kenai and other rivers. Little is known about the migratory timing of those fish, but they enter a corner of the ocean where large numbers of predators might be expected to gather to feast on hundreds of millions of young hatchery pinks riding the ocean currents north and west from Prince William Sound.
Reifenstuhl did not expect the big-run phenomenon to continue at Crawfish, given the ability of predators to sniff out opportunities for food.
“…If you use that ratio of 2.9 to 1 (return per spawner) that would mean next year’s forecast would be something on the order of 8 million fish,” he said. “We just don’t think that can happen. So we’re probably going to downgrade it, not use our typical regression, and even what we’ve seen in one past year, and we’re probably going to have a forecast of something like four million chum salmon for 2019.”
That’s slightly bigger than this year’s catch of 3.4 million, but it is based on the hatchery being up to full production. The forecast for the 2018 hatchery return was only 680,000 given that the facility was still in the development stage, but almost five times that many fish came back.
Natural mortality is the huge factor limiting returns in all wild salmon populations.
Scientists who put miniaturized tracking devices on sockeye in Canadian rivers are discovering that in some cases as few as 10 percent of the young even make it to sea alive, the Vancouver Sun reported in December.
University of British Columbia researcher Scott Hinch said new technology has revealed a life-and-death, ‘cat and mouse game’ with bull trout lining up to ambush out-migrating sockeye smolts trying to use darkness as cover to escape from Canadian lakes to the sea.
Hatchery successes, and more often failures, have already documented the toll taken on young fish once they reach the ocean.
British Petroleum, Union Carbide and the Weyerhaeuser Co. planned commercial salmon hatcheries on an Alaska-scale along the Oregon coast in the 1980s, but years of poor returns put an end to that idea.
“The wealthy corporations built state-of-the art hatcheries, released millions of salmon into the ocean to be caught by sport and commercial fishermen and began counting the money to be made when the tasty coho and Chinook returned and were served to seafood-loving Americans,” UPI reporter Tom Towslee wrote in 1985.
“But the pampered, pond-reared salmon couldn’t make it in the real world. They either starved to death in the ocean, became easy prey for predators or simply never returned — at least not in sufficient numbers to make aquaculture a money-making proposition.
“Now, after 12 years and investments of millions of dollars, none of Oregon’s 11 private salmon-breeding farms have made a profit.”
Though Towslee blamed the failure on those “pampered, pond-reared salmon,” it probably had a lot more to do with ocean productivity at the time.
The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) was in a warm phase, which tends to benefit Alaska salmon to the detriment of Pacific Northwest salmon.
“Nathan Mantua and his colleagues were the first to show that adult salmon catches in the Northeast Pacific were correlated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation,” according to a National Marine Fisheries Service study. “They noted that in the Pacific Northwest, the cool PDO years of 1947–1976 coincided with high returns of Chinook and coho salmon to Oregon rivers. Conversely, during the warm PDO cycle that followed (1977-1998), salmon numbers declined steadily.”
Pacific Northwest returns improved with a shift toward a cooler PDO in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but the PDO has largely favored Alaska – with only a couple of exceptions – since the 1980s.
And it has strongly favored Alaska in the last few years as it did in the 1980s and ’90s when Inlet Chinook runs were booming. That those runs are struggling now when they should be doing well only adds to today’s mystery.
Some have suggested predation from northern pike, an introduced species that has grown and spread throughout the Susitna drainage, might provide the answer.
But Kristine Dunker, the state’s invasive species coordinator isn’t quite buying that idea. There is no doubt, she said, that pike have wreaked havoc on some Su tributaries.
They destroyed the Alexander Creek Chinook run and killed what was once a thriving summer tourism industry centered around the creek’s confluence with the Su, but Dunker said “the habitat is ideal for pike there.”
That is not the case for east-side tributaries to the Su, she added. The pike habitat in most of those streams is poor. As a result, pike can’t survive, but still Chinook returns have fallen.
“While pike are certainly a factor,” she said, “they’re not the only factor. It’s not helping matters. (But) it’s complicated.”
The resource business
None of this offers much reassurance to a guy like Andy Couch who grew up in the Valley and eventually built himself a business as a fishing guide.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been here,” he said. “I was in high school.”
He still remembers his first trip to the Deshka River, a Susitna hotspot for kings. It was at the time a long ride to get there in a canoe powered by a 15-horsepower outboard with a propeller, he said.
Now, it’s a matter of a run of minutes to the Deshka by jetboat from the Deshka Landing boat launch just off the George Parks Highway near Willow. The private operation dates back to the 1980s when Susitna king returns started booming.
For years, it was a mob scene on weekends in May and June as fishermen lined up to get their boats in the water. The business has been forced to diversify as fishing has changed. It now devotes a fair amount of attention to attracting snowmobilers in winter although summer remains the big season.
Another season without a king fishery is going to make life tough for everyone along the river, said Couch, whose own business has long been focused on the Little Su.
“It’s a real big hit,” he said. “Last year was the worst I can remember.”
This year looks to top that. The good-old-days are threatening to become only a memory.
“For a long time, it’s been 200 to 300 guests in my boat during king season,” Couch said.
“As far as the economics of it go, most of my stuff is paid for….I’ve got some money in savings and what not, and I pretty live economically.
“I can still go trout fishing and do some guiding of some sort.”
And the season for coho salmon – the hard-fighting fish Alaskans call silvers – remains, although what happens there depends to a significant degree on how many of salmon escape the nets of commercial fishermen in the Inlet.
Still, Couch – like others in the fishing business in The Valley – is optimistic he can hang on if the tough times don’t last much longer. That they might persist for years is what really worries him.
Of that Fish and Game claim to a 1-to-1 ratio return of adult kings to spawners, he is skeptical.
“I don’t think we’re even getting that,” he said.
That leaves him worrying about a continuing downward creep in Chinook numbers. Vania shares the concern, but also recognizes the vagaries of nature. There were a lot of biologists before him who retired from Fish and Game having voiced the fear it would be good to be gone before this crash came.
“Ultimately,” Vania said, “this doesn’t surprise me. Everything is cyclic. The runs are still sustainable.”
The harvestable surplus? Well, that’s another matter.
Alaskans can only hope. What the ocean taketh away, it also sometimes gives back. There is always the possibility salmon returns will exceed expectations.
State fishery managers said they will be monitoring Su returns carefully this summer, and if there are surplus fish they will open a season.
Just don’t bet on that happening.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story had the wrong date for the opening of Deshka Landing on the Susitna River.