For the fourth time this decade – but only the eighth time in the state’s 60-year history – Alaska is on the cusp of posting another salmon harvest at or above the 200 million mark.
This is four-minute-mile territory for historic catches of wild and free-range, hatchery salmon.
As of this week, the catch stands at 199,135,000. Historically, the five-year average harvest for the last three weeks of the season measures 796,000. An average catch for these three weeks would bring the year’s preliminary harvest to within 69,000 fish of the magic 200-million mark.
And there is a normal variation of about a half percent to 1 percent between preliminary catch numbers and final numbers. The preliminary catch in the big year of 2015 was reported at 263.5 million, but the final catch figure was 265.2 million.
The record harvest of 2013 was originally reported at 272 million, but grew to 280.3 million in the final tally. It was the same in 2005 when the preliminary report of 206.1 million grew to 221.2 million.
Some years have, however, slid the other way. After the mediocre season last year with a preliminary catch reported at 114.5 million, it dropped even further to 113.8 million in the final tally.
So it is possible the year could end with a catch of closer to 199 million, which would be shy of the new standard for a banner year but still mark 2019 as the eighth largest catch in state history.
Credit a warmer Pacific ocean, better fisheries management and prolific pink salmon – both hatchery and non-hatchery fish – for this bonanza. Odd years are historically big years for pinks in the Pacific, and though the pink harvest started off slow and with concerns of Prince William Sound turning into a bust, the smallest and shortest-lived of Pacific salmon as of today comprise more than 62 percent of the statewide harvest.
About 65 percent of the pink harvest has come from the Sound and Kodiak areas where hatchery production factors significantly. The McDowell Group, a consultancy, last fall calculated state-subsidized, commercial-fishermen-controlled, private, nonprofit hatcheries in those areas and in the Panhandle added an additional 52 million fish per year to the Alaska harvest from 2012 to 2017.
The Alaska fish farming operations, which the states’ fishermen prefer to call salmon “ranching,” have powered the U.S. to the position of world leader in the production of hatchery salmon. Alaska, in turn, accounts for about 85 percent of all U.S. releases of hatchery salmon.
The Alaska release of 1.6 billion young fish in 2017, down from a peak of 1.8 billion in 2014, is about two and a half times bigger than the releases from the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California plus releases from Canda.
Questions have been raised about the ecological consequences of Alaska sending so many young hatchery fish to sea, but the hatcheries have been a good business for the state.
“Alaska’s salmon hatcheries contribute nearly a quarter of the value of our state’s salmon harvests and generate $600 million in economic output, with impacts throughout the economy,” McDowell reported in the study funded by the state’s hatcheries.
The study claimed “more than 16,000 fishermen, processing employees, and hatchery workers can attribute some portion of their income to Alaska’s salmon hatchery production,” but did concede “Alaska’s seafood processing sector has high non-resident labor participation.”
That “processing sector” accounts for most of the jobs.
The 4 percent
“Over the study period an annual average of 3,840 permit holders and an estimated 4,860 crew – for a combined 8,700 fishermen – benefited from hatchery production,” the study said, but the data included in the study showed that more than 77 percent of pinks were caught by a total of 667 purse-seine skippers.
Seiners do, however, support the largest crews, typically three or four people. The McDowell report said its estimated crew employment was based on three crewmen for seiners and one each for power trollers, drift gillnetters and set gillnetters.
The study also made hard-to-substantiate claims for tens of millions of dollars in hatchery contributions to sport fish businesses in the state, but the estimate that “approximately $25 million of (non-resident angler) spending can reasonably be attributed to hatchery-produced salmon, with about 40 percent of that spending in Southeast, 40 percent in Prince William Sound, with the balance elsewhere in the state” does appear that big of a stretch.
The $25 million would represent about 4 percent of the $600 million the Alaska Visitors Statistics Program calculates non-resident anglers spent in the state in 2016. No matter how one looks at the numbers, however, hatcheries have become big business in the 49th state.
Still, the truly big value in Alaska salmon remains with non-hatchery fish. Wild sockeye salmon, primarily from Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska, accounted for 44 percent of the statewide harvest last year but almost 60 percent of the statewide value.
Global warming beneficiary?
Another big catch in the Bay this year of more than 47 million sockeye is expected to again give those fish a sizeable share of total state value. Prices paid fishermen for sockeye in the Bay started with a base price of $1.35 per pound compared to a statewide pink price a quarter to a third of that.
With Bay sockeye averaging about five and a half pounds, a catch of 47 million would be worth about $349 million to fishermen. At an average price of 30 or 40 cents per pound, the statewide catch of about 125 million smaller-sized pinks is likely to be worth somewhere between $115 million and $200 million.
The Bay appears to have been one of biggest beneficiaries of a warming Bering Sea and a warming Southwest Alaska.
“We know climate warming is making rivers more productive for the food juvenile salmon eat, meaning their growth rate is speeding up. That puts the salmon on a growth trajectory that moves them to the ocean faster,” University of Washington (UW) scientist Daniel Schindler told the UW News after he and colleagues published on sockeye growth rates in Nature Ecology & Evolution last year.
Whether this means the big Bay runs of the last several years will become the norm is an unknown. UW scientists also reported Bay sockeye spending an extra year at sea, apparently due to difficulty finding enough to eat on a pasture over-run by hatchery-produced fish from Alaska, Japan and Russia.
“Hatchery fish have really changed the competitive environment for juvenile salmon in the ocean,” Nature paper lead author Timothy Cline told UW News. “In Bristol Bay, the (freshwater) habitat is totally intact and fisheries management is excellent, but these fish are living in lakes warming with climate change, then competing with other salmon for food in the ocean.”
The warmer lakes are a good thing. Warm water fuels the growth of more plankton which feeds more fish. The competition at sea with human-spawned salmon is another matter.
“We just don’t know where there’s (an ecological) tipping point, especially as we fill the ocean with hatchery competitors,” Schindler said. “We need to be really cognizant about overstressing the marine resources that support wild salmon.”
So far, though, it’s been pretty much Fat City for Alaska fishermen.
The state is on track to close out the 2010s with an average annual harvest of about 180 million salmon per year – up from a peak of 167.4 million in the 2000s and almost 50 percent larger than the 1980s average of 122.4 million.
Fisheries scientists once doubted this possible.
By the middle of the 1990s, researchers were warning that the Pacific might be approaching or already at its maximum carrying capacity for salmon. By the end of the 2000s, however, they had changed their tune.
“….Regardless of whether wild salmon are being replaced by hatchery salmon, our results indicate that the ocean is producing more salmon biomass than previously,” James Irvine and Masa-aki Fukuwaka reported in the ICES Journal of Marine Science in 2011.
Not all salmon stocks have benefitted equally, however. Prized runs of sockeye salmon to the popular Kenai and Copper rivers of Central Alaska appear to decrease as pink runs increase although no one has found a cause. The correlation could simply be an accident.
Pacific Northwest salmon, even in areas largely free of dams that have diminished freshwater survival, are struggling, too.
Canada’s Fraser River, a major West Coast sockeye producer, is this year facing a disaster. A return of approximately 4.8 million sockeye was forecast; fewer than 630,000 are now expected based on staggeringly low returns to date.
Just to the north of the Fraser in British Columbia, the sockeye return to the Skeena River has been downgraded from a forecasted 1.7 million to 652,000. Canadians are worried.
The Star newspaper in Vancouver, British Columbia reported Canadian fisheries officials saying some components of the run in the sprawling, 85,000-square-mile Fraser drainage now “face an imminent threat of extinction.”
Poor ocean survival is believed to be the cause. In a paper now under review, scientists from Kintama Research Services in Nanaimo, Britsh Columbia are reporting that after examining 3,005 years worth of Chinook (king) salmon data for the North American coast, excluding California waterways, they have identified a four- to five-fold drop in ocean survival for those fish.
They went so far as to suggest fisheries managers trying to improve Pacific Northwest runs have focused on the wrong target, writing that “the size of the decline is too large to be compensated by freshwater habitat remediation or cessation of harvest, and too large-scale to be attributable to specific anthropogenic impacts such as dams in the Columbia River or salmon farming in British Columbia.
“Within the Columbia River, both smolt survivals during downstream migration in freshwater and adult return rates of Snake River populations, often singled out as exemplars of poor survival, appear unexceptional and are in fact higher than estimates reported from other regions of the west coast lacking dams.”
Some Alaska salmon might be flourishing as never seen in recorded history, but the same has not happened everywhere or with all species.
‘The total abundance of salmon in the North Pacific has now reached record levels,” David Welch and colleagues wrote; “however, a dramatic contrast in the winners and losers is obscured by this milestone,” they wrote. “Most of the increased abundance is in the lowest valued species (pink Oncorhynchus gorbuscha and chum O. keta salmon) in far northern regions, at least partly due to major efforts at ocean ranching of these two species.
“In contrast while essentially all west coast North American Chinook (O. tshawytscha) populations (including Alaska) are now performing poorly with dramatically reduced productivity. The situation is similar for most southern populations of steelhead (O. mykiss) , coho (O. kisutch) [8, 9], and sockeye (O. nerka). These poorly performing species are of higher economic value and the preferred focus of First Nations, sport, and many commercial fisheries.”
But no one knows why. Though scientific management of salmon has been underway for years, the ocean – where the fish spends most of their lives – remains a black box.