“Sled Dogs” meet “Artifishal,” the latest film seeking to document the evil humans do in the quest for profit, glory and/or the noble aim of making the world better.
“Sleds Dogs” was the documentary about dog abuse that made life hell for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2017 and on into 2018. “Artifishal” is a documentary that hopes to do the same for salmon hatcheries everywhere with the warning that “the road to extinction is paved with good intentions.”
The new, anti-hatchery film has a big backer in the form of Patagonia clothing company founder Yvon Chouinard. Chouinard helped produce the film and has already screened it at the Patagonia stores in Vail Village, Colo.; Northstar at Truckee, Calif.; Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, and Snowmass and Breckenridge, Colo.
The company is now actively soliciting film festivals, community event planners and theaters to host further screenings across the country. Patagonia enjoys a sizable cult following.
An Artifishal-associated petition aimed specifically at blocking increased production of hatchery Chinook salmon in Washington State has already collected more than 250,000 signatures.
“Wild salmon and southern resident killer whales are on the brink of extinction. Now a misguided plan to feed the starving whales with hatchery salmon will push both endangered species closer to the edge, while costing taxpayers millions of dollars per year,” the petition says.
“Hatcheries and over harvest, along with net-pen fish farms and dams, are key contributors to the catastrophic decline of wild Chinook salmon and southern resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.”
Artifishal does not specifically target Alaska’s massive, nation-leading salmon hatchery program, but Patagonia is advising consumers to “buy wild salmon from well-managed, hatchery-free fisheries.”
Alaska’s fisheries – with the exception of the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery – are hatchery heavy. Last year, “hatchery fish contributed 34 percent of the statewide commercial salmon harvest and 30 percent of the statewide commercial harvest ex-vessel value,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s “Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report.”
If the catch from Bristol Bay – which produces salmon Patagonia specifically advised consumers to buy – is removed from the 2018 Alaska catch of 114.5 salmon, almost two out of every three fish caught by commercial fishermen was a hatchery fish.
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has tried to spin those fish as “wild caught,” not farmed. ASMI is a cooperative effort between the state and the commercial fishing industry.
The wild-caught cover is paper-thin and gets called out in “Artifishal” and by Patagonia which claims on its website that “science demonstrates that in the presence of hatchery fish, wild fish populations trend toward zero. Meanwhile, hatchery fish populations, due to inbreeding and domestication, trend toward zero over time as well. Which means if we keep relying on hatcheries, we will experience declining fishing opportunities, and eventually, no fish at all.”
The science is, however, nowhere near this black and white. Alaska scientists studying pink salmon straying all over hatchery-filled Prince William Sound have found that the first-year breeding success of hatchery escapees is significantly lower than for wild breeding fish, but there are indications the hatchery-origin fish evolve back toward wild fish over time.
Salmon have shown an amazing ability to evolve over the course of only a few generations to maximize their chances of survival in new environments.
More significantly, wild salmon in the Sound have shown no sign of trending toward zero since the state in the 1970s started a hatchery build out that transformed a region with an annual, average harvest of but 3 million salmon per year from 1951 to 1979 into a fishery that now average a catch of about 45 million salmon.
Wild streams of the region remain choked with fish in July and August, but questions have been raised as to the effects of hatchery production on wild Alaska salmon.
Scientists in the Sound in 2017 looking for lingering damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill stumbled on indications of “a negative relationship between adult hatchery pink salmon returns on sockeye salmon productivity” in the nearby Copper River.
Bill Templin, Fish and Games chief fisheries biologist, has cautioned the regulation-setting state Board of Fisheries that “correlations is not causation,” but that observation alone underlines a connection between trends that might, or might not, be connected.
“In Alaska, declines in size at age and abundance of Chinook salmon and coho salmon and a decrease in age at maturation in Chinook salmon may be related to the alteration of the food web by highly abundant pink salmon and higher mortality during late marine life,” Seattle fisheries Greg Ruggerone and Canadian scientist James Irvine wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries last year.
“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 (pink and chum) salmon. During 1990–2015, hatchery salmon represented approximately 40 percent of the total biomass of adult and immature salmon in the ocean.”
In the mix of salmon battling each other to survive on the high seas are those Pacific Northwest Chinook on which the killer whales depend. And Alaska fish, aided by Alaska hatcheries, appear to have taken over a larger corner of the Pacific pasture these days.
The salmon harvest this year is not expected to reach the pre-season forecast of 213 million, but it should end the season at or near 200 million in a state where 100 million was once considered a good year.
The state is closing in on a decadal average harvest of 180 million salmon per year, up from 167.4 million per year in the 2000s, up from 157.5 million per year in the 1990s, and up from 122.4 million per year in the 1980s when the state hatchery program was just beginning.
But not all species of salmon are winning. Alaska Chinook are struggling every bit as much as those in the Pacific Northwest. The last three years mark the historically lowest commercial catches in the history of the fish Alaskans call “king.”
“Artifishal” screened in mid-August in Bethel in far Western Alaska. A community on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, it has been watching Kusko Chinook runs struggle for a decade now despite the closure of the commercial fishery for the species.
Local residents long blamed Kusko king salmon shortages on the bycatch of the fish in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, the biggest and most profitable fishery in the country. But according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which closely monitors that fishery, the annual Chinook bycatch there has fallen from an average of about48,000 per year in the 2000s to about 18,000 per year this decade.
Update: This story was updated on Sept. 4, 2019 to note the Bethel screening of “Artifishal” and the Chinook-salmon related problems there.