Humpies gone

salmon seiner

A salmon seiner at work in Alaska/Nancy Heise, Wikimedia Common

Concern is edging toward panic for commercial salmon seiners in Alaska’s Prince William Sound where an expected big return of pink salmon has gone missing.


The  Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries supervisor for the region said Monday that the non-profit Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) is now expecting its hatchery to get only half its forecast return of 20.1 million pinks.

Things aren’t looking much better for the commercial-fishermen run hatcheries of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC). PWSAC has been fishing since Tuesday to catch pinks in a “cost recovery” fishery that pays for hatchery expenses, but state fishery managers report it still has less than 20 percent of the desired catch.

Overall, the Sound-wide catch was less than half of what it was expected to be by Monday.

“The cumulative PWS pink salmon harvest through August 4 is estimated at 12 million common-property fish (CPF) and 1.6 million cost recovery fish or a total of 13.6 million fish,” Fish and Game posted Monday in its latest announcement to seiners. “The 5-year, odd-year average (2009–2017) cumulative PWS pink salmon harvest (cost recovery and CPF fish) through August 4 is 31.2 million fish.”

Seiners are at the moment allowed to fish in only a small area of the eastern Sound. Lewis said runs of wild fish to streams look to be better than the returns to hatcheries, but the fish have stalled offshore, apparently due to low stream flows sparked by an unusually warm and dry July in the area just east of Anchorage.

He expected a surge of fish to their spawning grounds with the first good rain, but how big that surge remains to be seen. Fishermen are on pins and needles. As one longtime Sound fishermen put it Monday, “next week will tell the tale.

“If fish are not here by August 12 to 15th, they ain’t coming.”

Bye-bye happiness

This isn’ the way the 2019 season was supposed to go down. Coming off a weak, odd-year harvest of 24 million pinks, seiners were expecting an odd-year bonanza.

“In the wake of a 2018 fishing season that left many scraping to get through the winter, forecasts for the upcoming commercial season bode well for a harvest of upwards of 70 million Pacific salmon in Prince William Sound,” The Cordova Times reporter Margaret Bauman wrote in April.

Odd-year pinks and even-year pinks are distinctly different fish stocks, and the odd-year fish have long been predominate in most of Alaska.

More than 90 percent of the 64.7 million salmon officially projected to be harvested in the Sound this year were expected to be pink salmon with the bulk of those swarming back to VFDA and PSWAC hatcheries.

Combined, the salmon ranchers expected a harvest of 42.4 million, or about two thirds of the entire forecast catch of pinks. Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicted a catch of 22.4 million wild fish, a significant number of them now hatchery strays. 

The return should have started building toward a peak weeks ago. It hasn’t.

A Fish and Game graph that tracks the catch about says it all:

The chart shows a harvest lagging badly behind last year and dwarfed by the last odd-year harvest in 2017. There are still humpies out there, Lewis said, but how many is hard to tell.

“We can see them in our aerial surveys,” he said, but stream counts remain below goals.

With the big drop in the expected VFDA return of humpies – as Alaskans often refer to pinks because of the humpback shape males take on when preparing to spawn – Lewis said, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see (PWSAC) come under forecast, too.

“The forecast may have been inflated because it included two record runs (2015 and 2017). It biases them high.”

But that doesn’t explain the return lagging behind last year’s smallish, even-year return. Not that Alaska fisheries are all that predictable to begin with.

“There’s always something performing way above or way under expectations,” Lewis said.

For most of this decade it has been way above for the 49th state, and Alaksans have grown accustomed to living off the fat of the land. The average harvest for the decade is about 181 million fish per year. It stood at 122.4 million in the 1980s and increased in every decade that followed. 

The all-time stare record harvest was set in 2013. More than 80 percent of the 272 million salmon harvested that year were pinks.  The harvest of 219 million pinks topped 2015 when 190.5 million pinks comprised more than 72 percent of the state’s second-highest commercial salmon harvest of 263.5.

Two years later, it was more of the same with pinks again the bulk of the third-highest harvest in state history at 223 million. But the humpies had dropped to 62 percent of the total, and only 47 million of the salmon caught by fishermen that year were hatchery fish, which Fish and Game’s Mark Stopha blamed on a big wild run when writing the Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report 2017.

“Hatchery fish contributed 21 percent of the statewide commercial salmon harvest, which is the lowest percentage of hatchery fish in the harvest since 1995, and due largely to an extraordinary wild stock harvest that was the third highest in Alaska history, ” he said.

But that didn’t shift the views of any Alaska commercial fishermen who see hatcheries as the golden goose back-stopping always unpredictable Mother Nature. Stopha duly noted the importance of pinks and the industrial-scale hatcheries in the Sound.

“Prince William Sound facilities produce the majority of hatchery pink salmon in the state,’ ‘he wrote.”The Prince William Sound purse seine fishery, which harvests primarily pink salmon, was closed in 1972 and 1974, with minimal fishing in 1973. Fishermen and processors were anxious to get hatchery production on line quickly to aid in the recovery of the fishery, and pink salmon were both a targeted species and provided the quickest turnaround from egg take to harvest. Pink salmon were, and continue to be, the most abundant species in Prince William Sound, with historic infrastructure in place for processing pink salmon.”

For the past three decades, those hatcheries have produced consistently large harvests, which is what has fishermen and biologists scratching their heads about this year’s return.


There was a tiny hint of a potential pink salmon problem earlier this year. A Russian research ship – the Professor Kaganovskiy – conducting a privately funded, first-ever survey of the Gulf of Alaska in cooperation with scientists from Canada, Russia and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported finding oddly few pinks in its samples.

With no background data against to weigh that discovery, some scientists speculated that the pinks might have been south of the search area for the research trawls. Day by day, it’s looking more like the missing humpies might have been a harbinger of things to come, but there is always the possibility – at least for another week or so – that fish are simply late in their return to Sound streams and hatcheries.

The Kaganovskiy expedition estimated only 4.2 million pinks in the Gulf this winter, an incredibly small number given the Alaska forecasts for summer harvests. Sockeye were more than twice as abundant.

The latter never outnumber pinks in the Sound, but the region has seen a healthy return of sockeye this year. More than 1 million – a quarter million over the escapement goal – have been counted in the Copper River, and the count is undoubtedly low given the fish-counting sonar was washed out by high water in July. 

Commercial fishermen, meanwhile, have caught almost 2.5 million sockeye Sound wide. The forecast was for a harvest of about 2 million. This follows on a 2018 sockeye season that was a total bust.

The “why” of all this remains a big unknown. The ocean is a black box.

Young salmon disappear into it; salmon managers take a guess at expected survival at sea based on what has happened in recent year; calculate a number; and then cross their fingers.

With 90 percent or more of the fish destined to disappear into the ocean waters in the best of circumstances, even a small change in ocean survival can produce a big change in the size of the return. Though VFDA forecast 20 million, the range for the forecast was from 10 million to 30 million.

The Canadians and NOAA have been leading efforts to try to determine the controlling factors at sea in order to provide better forecasts. Richard Beamish, the dean of Canada’s Pacific salmon scientists, is trying to again organize funding for a second winter survey by the Kaganovskiy or a similar research vessel.

Canadian scientists have seen indications that the early marine survival of salmon plays a big roll in the size of eventual returns.  They’ve hypothesized that the die is cast by the end of the first winter at sea.

If that proves to be the case, Beamish messaged, it would “show that it may be possible to reliably forecast returns using a survey. So stayed tuned and we will see if there is some special science here.”

Better forecasts would surely come as a relief to fishermen who sometimes find themselves caught on an emotional roller coaster of up – when big returns are promised – and down – when even average forecasts fail to materialize as happened in both Copper River and upper Cook Inlet last year. 




















15 replies »

  1. Yes it most definitely does occur to scientists the world over that industrial sized hatchery ranches at the magnitude seen in Alaska are having many diverse negative effects.
    The problem in Alaska comes with the ADFG not clearly expounding on the risks of these adverse effects clearly and concisely using the regulatory Precautionary Principle as their guide.

    With the chief Hatchery employee taking the helm as Commercial Fisheries Director seat in Alaska. When he speaks we get biased rhetoric not backed with any scientific basis except his subjective view, as he shields his friends and past employers the hatchery corporations. Hatcheries are religion to him…very unfortunate for the wild fish species of Alaska

  2. Don’t worry, there will be an economic disaster declaration by the end of September and another $60 million will roll in from the federal government because of the low return of ranched pink salmon.

  3. If you quit ranching pinks and start farming them onshore or offshore, their capture and sale will be predictable and easily able to exploit.

    If the problem is in PWS or the North Pacific, we should see similar problems with coho and king returns in PWS. Anyone have an idea how those have been doing this summer?

    Perhaps the seabird dieoffs were a top level indicator of the health and prevalence of the biomass in PWS and the North Pacific. Cheers –

    • Salmon farms in British Columbia, Puget Sound, Norway and Chile, use large amounts of antibiotics and hormones added to fish pellets, which are fed to caged salmon. Humans eat these fish and also ingest the byproducts of these synthetic chemicals. Not what I want to eat.

      • Chilean farmed salmon, are fed copious amounts of antibiotics and hormones. They are the highest amounts of chemicals, of any other country, that produces farmed salmon.
        Miami is the largest importer of Chilean farmed salmon.

      • You need to remember what Craig has written here, James. Onshore farmed salmon are well on their way to being judges better tasting and lower in impurities than wild salmon. Whether or not you want to eat farmed salmon is irrelevant. Enough people in this world want to so that farmed salmon is well on its way to putting commfish out of business in much the same way as Henry Ford put the buggywhip manufacturers out of business or Edison put community bands and theater troupes out of business a century ago. The train is coming down the tracks. And it is accelerating. Cheers –

      • Agimarc,
        Actually there was recent article about the new onshore Nordic RAS salmon farm in Humbolt county in CA. Local community is balking at the fresh water demands and the cost of it. There is no extra water in this area. Nordic wants the community to bend over and take it.

        Also, yes, Nordic RAS does not use growth hormones, like the Chilean farms, though that ey still use antibiotics. Salmon do not do well in a contained system, they get stressed out and develop disease, reason why the use of chemicals.
        The one Chilean farm not using chemicals, has been under reporting the mortality data. They have recently been fined and have lost their sustainable certification. They dumped tons of dead salmon in the ocean near shore, caused an unhealthy algae bloom, which killed more marine species.
        This Nordic onshore farm is not built yet, wait until it is up and running, before we slap each other in the back, at the portential demise of the Alaska commercial fisher.
        Furthermore, you want to eat gmo, chemical infused fish, with unhealthy amounts of antibiotics, be my guest.

      • So like you are committed vegetarian, as every single cut of meat has some percentage of “helpful” chemicals? Hint: so do the veggies. Do the onshore farmed fish carry the same chemical load that the offshore farmed fish do? Anyone out there have any actual data? Hint: animal husbandry has been doing this for a long time with little measurable negative impact. Fish farming is just starting. Please define and / or quantify “unhealthy amount of antibiotics.” FWIW, there are at least 3 US onshore salmon farms either in operation or under construction. The train continues down the tracks and it aint slowing down. Cheers –

  4. Seems like more Pinks are in the Cook Inlet waters than usual. Could the loss of PWS Pinks be partially the result of more straying than is being reported by the Hatcheries and the Dept?

  5. Sitting at anchor in lower Hood Canal (washington state) siping my tea and reading yet another excellent Medred article on fisheries while waiting for the morning deliveries of kings from the hatchery beach seine fishery. I am a fish buyer/broker and while I zealously follow ADFG, Elizabeth Earl, Fishery Nation and more for fish news, Medred is consistently, by far and away the best source going for substantive fisheries news. Thank you, Craig! Keep up the good work. I will continue to slog through the extreme sports posts and grit my teeth on the pro-sportfish agit-prop to get to the good stuff. Oh, and incidentally, we here in the south lands are seeing substantially larger chinook this year, to the tune of 3-4 pounds/average fish and many fewer jacks, which seem to show up en mass when the runs are stressed. Our pinks, which were forecast to be very weak seem to be showing up 2-3 times expectations. Incoming Coho look to be 50% better than the already strong forecasts. And then there’s the California king run, breaking records and crashing markets as we speak. Our sockeye, by contrast, are not doing well, while AK sockeye are coming on strong. So the oceans giveth and the oceans taketh away. One thing to watch—I predict Alaska will see unexpectedly strong salmon returns beginning in two years and stemming from the ash fertilization of your ongoing tundra fires. My own pet theory is that a lot of salmon productivity is driven by nutrient inputs to the near shore marine environment. Massive west coast fires in 2017&18=strong chinook, coho and pink runs this year and for the next few. Your kings will bounce back, Alaska. The only question is when.

  6. Didn’t Russian have an astronomically ginormous return last year?

    I was out in the Sound a couple weeks ago, there were a lot of dry stream beds, a lot.

  7. Does it occur to anyone that these industrial scale pink hatcheries might be having a negative effect on the environment? This scale of human influence on a natural process and environment, particularly one we actually know so little about (ocean life cycle of salmon) seems pretty scared to me.

Leave a Reply