Fading kings

ship creek chinook

A king salmon in Anchorage’s Ship Creek/USFWS

The Alaska fishing season has only just begun, but early indications are the Cook Inlet king salmon collapse is developing just about as forecast by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the exception of the Anchor River near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula and hatchery-boosted Ship Creek in the heart of the state’s largest city, returns generally look grim.

The early-run of the big fish to the fabled Kenai River – the state’s most popular salmon stream – is so far lagging behind last year when the river failed to meet the spawning goal of 3,900 fish larger than 34 inches. 

Only about 250 kings have been counted through the weir on the Deshka River, the most popular salmon stream in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage. That’s better than last year when the return reached only about 65 percent of the minimum spawning goal of 13,000 kings, but not by much.

Expecting this, the state in January announced the closure of Mat-Su king salmon seasons for summer. The move hit Mat-Su tourism businesses hard.

By the start of June in the boom years of the 2000s, anglers would sometimes see thousands of kings through a weir upstream from a Deshka-Susitna rivers confluence so packed with boats and anglers it was sometimes hard to imagine a fish could get through all the hooks.

The daily counts at the weir on May 29 and May 31, 2004 were bigger than the seasonal count so far this year. The Deshka ended up plugged with almost 58,000 kings that year.

It was the good old days.

The big mystery

What has happened since no one knows although Pacific coast-wide problems with kings, or Chinooks as they are known in many other places, point to low ocean survival.

When runs started faltering in 2007, the state put considerable effort into trying to figure out why and was only able to conclude that “that most of the Chinook salmon mortality is occurring in the first few months of life at sea.”

It’s complicated, a 2016 state summary of the research concluded: “Numerous physical and biological factors can influence production and survival of Chinook salmon in the freshwater and marine phases of their lifecycle.”

There are no commercial, sport or other fisheries removing kings bound for the Inlet, and the spawning habitat for the fish – especially that for the early-run Kenai kings – is largely untouched by the hands of man.

Some lower-48 biologists have suggested the big kings are losing out to smaller, far more numerous pink salmon in the competition for food at sea. But state fisheries biologists say the marine food web in the Pacific is so complicated no one can be certain of this cause.

Ironically, the king fisheries doing best in Cook Inlet at this time are hatchery-supported fisheries at Ship Creek, the Eklutna Tailrace just north of the city, and the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon in Homer.

Even there, however, the kings are few comparison to pinks, many of them hatchery fish. Pinks are a mainstay of the Alaska commercial fishing industry. The state banned net-pen farming of salmon about 30 years ago, but it is a global leader – second only to Japan – in the open-ocean farming of salmon.

A peer-reviewed study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution in May reported that is in part thanks to a warming ocean that allowed “the biomass of salmon (to double) between 1960 and 2010.

“This increase is due in part to greater wild salmon abundance, but has been largely driven by hatchery releases of Pacific salmon by the surrounding nations. Recent estimates attribute 40 percent of Pacific salmon abundance to hatchery-produced fish, although this estimate is conservative as hatchery fish that spawn naturally are not counted.”

The study was aimed at Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. Those fish support the state’s most valuable salmon fishery. The study concluded warming waters in Bay lakes are making salmon grow faster and go to sea sooner, which should theoretically boost salmon numbers, but competition for food at sea limits how much the sockeye can find to eat and they are thus forced to spend an extra year in the ocean before maturing and returning to spawn.

“The positive effects of climate change for earlier migration to the ocean, which may increase population productivity, are largely dampened by longer ocean residence,” the scientists concluded. “The evidence for overcrowding of salmon in the ocean and increased competition for resources has been gaining strength. Hatchery production has increased substantially since 1970, and there is high spatial and trophic overlap between sockeye, pink and chum salmon in the North Pacific.”

Chinook also appear to be in that mix. Seattle research biologist Greg Ruggerone and Alaska state fisheries biologist Beverly Agler in 2010 reported finding changes in the growth patterns of Chinook in the Bering Sea that appear linked to abundant pinks.

In a report prepared for the Arctic Yukon Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative Project Product, they wrote that “alternating-year patterns in Chinook salmon growth at sea were detected and may reflect direct and/or indirect interactions with pink salmon, which are exceptionally abundant in the Bering Sea during odd-numbered years.”

Russia is this year forecasting a catch of about 300,000 metric tonnes of pink salmon or somewhere in the neighborhood of 190 million of the fish. The 2015 Alaska pink salmon catch of 190.5 million, the second largest in state history, weighed 295,420 tonnes. 














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14 replies »

  1. If I remember correctly there was a time not long ago, when there was a Kenai King lottery for 100 kings since the numbers were so depressed. I think that may have been pre-statehood or just after statehood. Granted back then the out of state commercial interests had simply ravished the resource, there was probably some cyclical environmental conditions going on also then as there are now.

  2. US economic zone already 200 miles.Over the decades pirate international gill netters have been chased thousands of miles across the pacific by coast guard,and apprehended.
    The year before halibut IFQ took effect(’95?), my boat(that I fished on) FV Masonic and two other vessels,FV Memories and cant remember the third, set up a venture to steam from Dutch Harbor to Midway Island area to fish for swordfish and return to Dutch to sell.
    The Thermalclines where nutrient rich cold North Pacific water meets the warm central pacific is where the HUGE swordfish hang,also sea turtles and moon fish the size of subaru cars.
    This area changes with whatever controls the currents, its really just like a huge river with eddies and swirls.
    It took 7 days/24 hrs running to reach the area, somewheres in the middle, days from Dutch,and days from Marshall island (which we never saw).
    Came a call on “The big set” from DEA,booming loud and clear, like they were line of sight.
    They wanted to know vessel name,documention #,names of crew,purpose,destination,landing port and such.
    So the idea of kings getting scooped internationally,probably not, perhaps in russian or japanese exclusive economic zone, perhaps.

  3. Thank you Craig, I always enjoy your fisheries articles. One quirk to all this Is that California kings are having an incredible year, the best in at least 20 years. Trollers are catching so much fish the market has crashed hard. West Coast Black cod fishermen are leaving quota on the table to go salmon fishing in California. And this in a state with such altered river systems the consensus was the fish would never come back. Turns out all it took was a few good tears of water flow on the Sacramento River and hitting the ocean conditions lottery. Hang tough, Alaska. The kings will come booming back one of these years. And when they do it’ll be just as much of a mystery and the current downward trajectory.

    • Like Global Warming..Some years you will have drought and they all will cry, “must be Global Warming”. Some years rain and snow will be plenty and they still will cry, “must be Global Warming”. To predict nature is a fools game. Like the cellphone gen, they demand it NOW.

  4. Historically, when a species becomes at risk of going away it has been because of over harvest by humans. The Dept blames ocean conditions; the commercial
    fleet blames high seas intercept and ocean conditions, non commercial users blame the commercial gill net fleet, by catch by trawlers or the competition for food. Translation: the hundreds of thousand of metric tons of hatchery released and caught Pink Salmon. The UCI gill net fleet is blamed for harvest and under reporting of Chinook caught. The Anglers are blamed for mortality occurring while doing hook and release. Or for the large numbers of guides putting pressure on the runs.
    But history tells us the reason for more and more low abundance is because of over harvest. Period! Remember “Cod” or “King of Fish” or the story of the Chilean Sea Bass? Or the American Bison? And many others!
    IMO, the Dept has failed to
    take responsibility for this problem. The Board of Fisheries has done likewise. There are way too many political pressures put on both, which puts short term economics ahead of sustainability. And when someone starts talking about cutting harvest by one user group or admits to making a management or policy mistake they will be pilloried. You do not get promoted in the Dept for making mistakes. And service on the BOF will be denied if one wants to make inroads in the commercial harvest.Witness the last BOF appointment and confirmation process.
    We better wake up, and soon!
    The tipping point is getting closer. When Chinook can no longer produce a harvestable surplus after natural predation the game will be over.
    And, regrettably, truth be known, there are those in the commercial sector and who were once in the Dept commercial division who would prefer that Chinook go away because it adversely impacts opportunity to harvest Sockeye, their “money fish”.

  5. get your head out of your ass…..
    these kings are being caught offshore and go to markets in Korea,Japan and China….
    many are being sold back to us………
    and who would you guess is catching this bounty and how…..get real Craig…..

    • A degree of this can happen, but it’s a big ocean.

      High seas operations have been going on for a long time, consistently, and it’s hard to fit the plunge from 58,000 Deshka kings to nil in a short time, to the offshore fleet.

      While the ‘pirate’ fleet is a problem, it doesn’t appear to do a good job of accounting for Chinook instability.

      • bob, What’s your proof that offshore catch of Chinook salmon is the reason for their decline? Are the satellites the Coast Guard use to monitor boats in the North Pacific not picking up ghost factory trawlers? Proof does exist for the fact that Alaska pumps billions of hungry pinks into the Pacific bio-system to disrupt the food chain. And proof does exist for the fact that the State of Alaska is incompetent and corrupt at managing fish and wildlife.

    • We won’t know in the foreseeable future, if ever, what is causing fewer and smaller kings. If there were fewer but they were the same size then I’d buy into the offshore theory. But they are smaller. Offshore harvesting doesn’t cause that. I think pink ranching is more to blame. Pinks and kings eat the same food. Also, timing of more pinks and fewer and smaller kings overlaps.

    • Bob,
      I agree that pirate fish processing vessels from Asia and Russia are a big concern on the collapse of our Chinook fishery in the upper Cook Inlet.
      The long liners are draining our seas…
      Why is the U.S. not enforcing our waters better?
      Watching a documentary called “Ice Race” it is common for Norwegian Naval vessels to escort Russian fishing vessels out of their protected waters.
      Add in the extra Billion gallons of waste water from Oil and Gas drilling platforms in the Cook and you can see why the Beluga whales (who rely on the Chinook for food) are not recovering.
      This is on top of Billions of gallons on nearly raw sewage added to the Inlet from Anchorage Municipal sewage discharges.
      Unfortunately the head of the DEC is focused on being “open for business” and not looking to preserve our natural resources in Alaska.

      • Steve,

        Media-science is simple & compact, sound-bites & PR. Real science goes for the real-world messes. The long-game. I’m up for real science, and I think you know its true value too.

        Pirates? Long liners? Yeah they exist, some anyway, and they’re ugly, pretty much all of them … but how many in our waters, for how long? How much data do we have? Facts? Questions we have here; answers, not so much.

        One thing we know about the bad guys, is they don’t go to any Assigned Quota Areas. They go where they can slay it. They aren’t fishing for depressed species. They need to make a heavy haul, and haul it back for the International Line. Farting around after scarce fish isn’t what they do. The ‘occasional’ nice King doesn’t cut it for them.

        Russian ‘fishing boats’ can show up on the Norwegian side of the line with $millions worth of electronic gear in the hold, and by the time they’re escorted back over the line they know more about that Naval vessel than it’s designers & builders. Or they do, if the Norwegians aren’t pumping their data-storage full of bogus signals … BWAHahaha!

        Ok – still with me? Good.

        Back when we were long-haired, scruffy and patchouli-smelling, we enjoyed Mother Earth News magazine. Still do. One day, they launched a campaign (late ’70s?), offering $300 Lifetime Subscriptions, and for some strange reason, it became a Craze. Under the terms, this huge windfall went into some type of Fund, making MEN one of the more secure publishers around. Their own little private PF, eh?

        I went to, and among other things I see they won a big lawsuit against the oil & gas industry back in the mid-90s, and credit their status to the windfall. “Ah yes, I’ve seen this before”. Like MEN, with a modicum of rational behavior, they’ve been secure, maybe indefinitely.

        Where this gets sticky, is when waste water dumpage selectively annihilates Kings, but other salmon species boom. Or a sewage outfall generally fertilizes the ecosystem, but if one subcomponent is failing, that’s because of sewage.

        Our science has a little gaposis here.

        I’m hoping that InletKeeper have a bunch of real data & research. What’s in the waste discharge? How quick does it mix & dilute down to zilch? And of course most importantly, do they share this material? It exists. EPA have it. The Companies do lots of it themselves, and they are impelled to do more by Regulators. FOIA ensures it’s accessible, to any entity with legal talent.

      • Ted,
        Lots of good information in your reply as it is refreshing to engage in a thoughtful debate aside from the usual in-state “party” bickering that goes on.
        What the data out of Puget Sound tells us is that today’s sewage wastewater is full of residual “pharmaceuticals” whose effects of Antibiotics and Anti Depressants on aquatic life is unknown?
        The “pirates” that I speak of mostly fish in “International Waters”, but what we saw during the Cod Wars is that Iceland had to extend its protection to 200 miles from its shores to protect the future of it’s fisheries.
        I suspect the U.S. will have to think about extending our protection zone as well.
        “The Third Cod War concluded in 1976, with a highly favourable agreement for Iceland; the United Kingdom conceded to a 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometre) Icelandic exclusive fishery zone after threats that Iceland would withdraw from NATO,As a result, British fishing communities lost access to rich areas and were devastated, with thousands of jobs lost.
        Since 1982, a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone has been the United Nations standard.”
        I highly recommend the 5 part documentary on Amazon titled “Ice Race” as these issues are the heart of their debate as ocean temps warm and international fishing fleets are pushed to the North Pacific.
        “…food and other resources is turning the Arctic into one of the most important and most explosive areas in the world. The battle over borders, the environment, food and resource management has begun. How will this affect the world and what will the consequences be for the Arctic?”

      • Steve,

        This reply got delayed a day…

        You’re right, my mistake; our waters only go out so far . But there are long-standing international agreements on HSDN “High Seas Drift Net” use, and the US Coastguard & Canadian long-range air support lead a group of nations to suppress this activity throughout the North Pacific (see link below).

        I found a NOAA Fisheries page, Annual Driftnet Reports to Congress. The most recent is the 2017 PDF report. In this PDF is a Table showing sightings & apprehensions of HSDN, from 2000 to 2017.

        To make this text-table more compact and hopefully keep it from breaking too bad in Comments, I put the numbers first, and then the Country names on the right, which are abbreviated. Years are shorted to 2 numbers, 00 to 17 (year 2000 to 2017).

        Canada-CA Japan-JP Russia-RU China-CN Taiwan-TW United States-US
        Total Sightings-TS Apprehended-AP

        Table 1. Total N. Pacific HSDN sightings + apprehensions, 2000 to 2017


        01|00|00|01|02|01|26|09|07|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|01|00| CA
        00|00|03|00|01|11|67|21|05|00|01|02|00|00|00|00|01|00| JP
        00|00|00|00|00|00|00|02|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00| RU
        00|00|00|00|11|00|00|00|00|01|01|00|00|00|00|00|00|00| CN
        00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00|00| TW
        01|00|02|24|08|05|05|08|10|00|01|00|01|00|01|00|00|00| US
        02|00|05|25|22|18|98|47|24|02|03|02|01|00|01|00|02|00| TS*
        01|00|00|06|01|00|00|07|02|01|01|01|01|00|01|00|00|00| AP**

        * May include multiple sightings of the same vessel or vessels.
        ** Out of the total number of vessels sighted.

        This is highly organized & resourced surveillance operation using Canadian long-range aircraft to spot suspicious vessels, and US Coastguard cutters intercept. Other nations were brought into the program.

        There was also a big international Rule change in 2008, and from 2009 on, sightings of drift net operators have been light.

        The PDF has other good info in it.

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