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.
“Probable overharvest of Cook Inlet Chinook salmon in the 1940s and 50s
resulted in drastic declines in Chinook salmon numbers in the 1960s,” a state history notes.
“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.
In 1975, the records of the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission say, “332 salmon gillnet vessels were operating in the North Pacific and its Bering
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.
At the time, Steve Braund of the Northern Cook Inlet Setnetters Association told the Board of Fisheries that his group only wanted to catch kings surplus to sport-fishing demand.
“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.
A huge bust forecast for Copper River kings two years ago never materialized.
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.
As Craig’s article mentioned there are lots of questions as to why king salmon have declined — but much fewer definitive answers. The State of Alaska has already spent millions of dollars searching for answers — but in some cases the state has failed to consider utilizing one of the least expensive options for gaining knowledge and providing at least a small level of sustainable king salmon harvests.
1. After discussing the issue with an ADF&G biologist — I’ve bought into to the idea that the State of Alaska should be requiring fin clipping and wire tagging of all hatchery king salmon smolt released into Alaska waters. This at the very least could provide researchers with some basic data of where these fish were being harvested AND it would be considerably cheaper than attempting to find, capture, and then clip and tag wild king salmon smolt. Some Alaska hatchery king salmon smelt are currently fin clipped — but not wire tagged. Much more bang for the research buck could be gained if these fish were simply wire tagged at the same time as being clipped. Other hatchery king salmon (some in Cook Inlet) are neither clipped or tagged. At a time when only hatchery fish may be harvested in some Cook Inlet king salmon sport fisheries and nearly all Cook inlet fisheries have concerns with wild king salmon escapement levels, it should be a crime to NOT clip AND wire tag hatchery king salmon smolt before release.
2. On Cook Inlet’s Deshka River –where the state has an abundance of king salmon data — including size / ages class data for many years of king salmon returns — the king salmon escapement goal should be a large king salmon escapement goal similar to those used at several Southeast Alaska locations and the Kenai River. With the current all kings goal — a big return of young male king salmon could account for most or all of the king salmon needed to achieve the current escapement goal — but if there were very few large (and older) age class king salmon there would be very few female king salmon in the escapement — the lack of eggs in the gravel would likely make such an escapement disastrous.
3. Larger king salmon goals therefore make sense — and especially on major indicator streams for other king salmon stocks — like the Deshka River. Currently the Deshka River preseason return estimate / outlook is used in management of all Northern Cook Inlet wild king salmon stocks and also in management of the Northern Cook Inlet commercial king salmon set net fishery. Developing and using a large fish goal for this indicator stock would increase accuracy in the preseason estimate and would better ensure quality king salmon escapements at a time the Department of Fish and Game is entertaining the idea of reducing the Deshka River king salmon escapement goal.
Here is some information about a new group studying salmon in the Gulf of Alaska: https://www.juneauempire.com/news/solving-the-salmon-problem/
I thought it interesting that they would surface trawl several areas of the Gulf and tag and release what they catch.
Deshka Landing Outdoors Association was established in 1998. But Deshka Landing was built and was being used extensively long before 1998.
you’re right. i have photos of my daughter and one of her friends fishing there in the late ’80s when we used to run down in the jetboat all the time. do you know the exact date?
i fixed it to the generic ’80s because i can find ADF&G documents dating it back to then. i’m thinking 1987, but i’m not sure.
I guess the 58 million gallons of essentially “untreated ” sewage water dumped into the Cook Inlet daily would have nothing to do with habitat concerns for salmon?
“As it is, Anchorage is one of only a few dozen sewage treatment plants in the U.S. to get a waiver from the Clean Water Act, allowing it to dump effluent with only primary treatment into local waters.
Since 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency, has issued the Anchorage plant waivers because it believes Cook Inlet’s extreme tidal flows efficiently dilute the waste, and, so far, no known impacts to the Inlet’s marine life have been uncovered.”
I share your concern about the dumping of sewage into Cook Inlet from Anchorage. What are the impacts on Cook Inlet salmon? An additional hard to answer question — could the dumping of this sewage be a significant or partial cause of the massive razor clam die off along the east side of Cook Inlet’s on the Keani Peninsula beaches?
Double-crested Cormorants are nesting in colonies, on sand bars & islands in the Columbia River. They consume thousands of chinook smolts, being released by government run hatcheries. Numerous stellar sea lions, eat all the survivors at the dam fish ladders, while the salmon are headed to spawn, 3-5 years later.
CA, OR, WA & BC are all experiencing diminished chinook returns. Puget Sound is a toxic dump, where bottom fish have high levels of human prescription meds in their muscle tissue.
None of the West Coast salmon runs are sustainable.
Loss of habitat, toxic sewage, predators & too many human beings, surrounding the rivers, have helped cause the dismal salmon returns.
One reason AK has had sustainable returns, was that only 750K people live in AK.
We will see what 2019 brings us, though hopefully the cycle has bottomed out, and it will raise again.
I disagree james,@750k,things arent even close to sustainable.
350-400k,now we’re talking.
I normally do not agree so clearly with your opinion.
“Puget Sound is a toxic dump, where bottom fish have high levels of human prescription meds in their muscle tissue.
Loss of habitat, toxic sewage, predators & too many human beings, surrounding the rivers, have helped cause the dismal salmon returns.”
I would add ship waste water, fracking fluids and waste water from oil and gas drilling operations in the Cook Inlet as well (along with Anchorage’s 21 Billion gallons of Sewage a year).
Problem is with a DEC unwillingly to tack our in state pollution issues, I am afraid these closures are the “New Norm” and here to stay.
Those aren’t Stellers that are eating smolts, they are Kalifornia Sea Lions and Harbor Seals. The Stellers are endangered themselves, and have been driven out of prime feeding areas by the much more plentiful and far more aggressive Kalifornia Sea Lions. Over 300,000 Kalifornia Sea Lions currently reside in Washington Waters, with only 70,000 Stellers in the state.
Thank you for the correction, appreciate it. I would also gladly help with a petition, to eliminate over 3/4 of these pinipeds, current found in CA-WA.
Majority of my fishing, has been in AK, where I only encounter Stellars & Harbor Seal, and they predate on salmon.
Those critters do prey on salmon, James. And now there appears to be another threat from bull trout (dollies) that prey on salmon smolts.
The argument against dollies used to be that they ate salmon eggs in streams but that was shown that those eggs not in nests were not viable eggs so no harm. This new thing about walls of dollies intercepting sockeye smolts as they head to sea is certainly news, to me. Last I had heard was that bull trout were endangered in lower 48 but they are still plentiful here.
Craig’s mention of those invasive pike is one thing for one creek (Alexander), but the bull trout (dollie) is clearly not a new invasive species. And, I suspect, this situation is probably not new either.
I blame the Russians!
Hah ! Me to . Whatever it was must’ve been a Russian behind it! Sure Wally .
Trump has to be in there somewhere along with Global Warming.. But, James is partially right, that waterfront property is just to irresistable.
Seems like after all the “Bull” we have been fed that “the new boss is the same as the old boss”…
I wonder how many streams in the Susitna Valley met their escapements last year?
With the current state of politics and fishing closures in AK, I can bet more folks will pack up this Spring.
“Last year was the sixth year in a row Alaska had a net migration loss, meaning more people moved out of the state than moved in. That’s the longest stretch on record for Alaska, said state demographer Eddie Hunsinger.”
Steve, there are a lot of reasons peole are leaving. Younger generation aside (drugs, drinking, laziness, etc..), just look at the real estate prices and what you get. Very high in a lot of areas with lack of jobs or resources. Go to Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, etc.. where for $350k you get a beautiful house, 3 car garage, malls, shopping, restaurants, hospitals, good schools, retirement care, and a stroll through the hood without a .460 strapped to your waist. The younger generation is growing softer and softer. The population will continue to drop.
Hopefully West Coasters will stay where they are at. Ruin every damn thing with their mental disorders.
We know U are an expert on “Ruin every damn thing with their mental disorders.”
All we need to remember are your “Phobias” that you are so proud of in past comments.
Finally we have a Commissioner who gets it. It’s been a long time! With some changes in the ADF&G , and with new directors and new policy makers on the Board of Fisheries, we might be able to reverse this trend before it is too late.
There are many things that are blamed for the decline of Chinooks. As there have been for many fish species. But, historically the reasons have always been because of over harvest. Let’s get a grip
on what we can control and see if maybe we have been the problem
all along. And be able to correct it.