In debt to the state of Alaska to the tune of about $90 million, beholden to the state to collect and turnover hatchery taxes on commercial fishermen to keep hatcheries running, and under fire as a threat to wild salmon, Alaska’s private, nonprofit (PNP) hatcheries have decided they need a better lobby.
“In working together with the other PNP operators, the following are lobbying goals and
objectives we are discussing for 2020,” Dean Day, executive director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association said in Jan. 23 memo to his board.
Day went on to outline plans to:
- “Inform Alaska Legislators of the salmon hatchery associations…including fishery enhancement programs and economic and social benefits.
- “Build strong positive relationships with fishery advisors within the Governor Dunleavy administration.
- “Enhance working relationships within the Alaska Department of Fish & Game….
- And “affect Alaska Board of Fisheries confirmations to positively shape policy on hatchery production and regulation.”
A copy of his memo was obtained by craigmedred.news.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Fairbanks Advisory Committee to the state Board of Fisheries, Homer-area hatchery critic Nancy Hillstrand and others have complained the hatchery operators already hold too much sway with state fishery managers.
For the defense
Bill Templin, the chief scientist for the Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries, has been an outspoken defender of the hatchery production of 16 million to almost 100 million pink and chum salmon per year this decade, arguing fellow scientists who have hypothesized an ocean-wide decline in returns of Chinook and localized declines in sockeye salmon and coho (silver) salmon due to at-sea competition with the hatchery fish don’t know what they are talking about.
“Correlation is not causation,” Templin in October 2018 reminded the state Board of Fisheries as it contemplated reductions in the approximately 1.5 billion young salmon the 25, commercial-fishermen-run PNP hatcheries now dump in the ocean every year.
Those questioning the hatchery program have produced no evidence hatchery stocking programs cause any threat to wild salmon, he said, ignoring a peer-reviewed study from scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric and Administration (NOAA), the University of Alaska, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research, the University of Washington and his very own agency which concluded that the high-volume hatchery operations in Prince William Sound were depressing sockeye returns to the nearby Copper River.
The scientists were looking for lingering damage to the Sound from the Exxon Valdez oil spill when they stumbled on the conflict between the hatcheries and wild Copper River sockeye.
“We found a negative relationship between adult hatchery pink salmon returns on sockeye salmon productivity, supporting the predation and adult competition hypothesis,” they wrote in a peer-reviewed study published at PLOS One.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns. While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.”
Given that the researchers could not identify the specific interaction between pinks and sockeyes that would spark such declines, Templin chose to overlook the study.
For the prosecution
Hatchery critics have charged the state is taking an ass-backward approach to hatchery reviews.
Hatchery operators and the state, hatchery critic Nancy Hillstrand of Kachemak Bay has observed, should be required to show the hatchery releases of massive numbers of young fish aren’t harming wild stocks instead of supporters of wild fish being required to prove the opposite.
Wiggling hatchery fry and smolt are among the very few forms of organic matter the government allows to be dumped in the ocean in large quantities without an environmental impact statement (EIS).
The dispute over hatcheries in Alaska comes at a time when the utility of salmon hatcheries, in general, is undergoing a global rethink and the farming of salmon has shifted massively from ranching – the preferred method in Alaska, Japan and Korea – to net-pen farming – the preferred method in Norway, Chile and Scotland – to increasingly on-land farming in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) in the U.S. and elsewhere
Scientists in the Pacific Northwest are questioning the interactions between hatchery and wild fish while scientists in Japan, where the business of ranching salmon got its start in a big way, are pondering whether the economic benefits touted by hatchery boosters actually exist.
“Captive breeding reduces the fitness of hatchery fish in the wild. In addition, long-term releases replace wild genes and may cause fitness decline in the recipient population when the proportion of hatchery fish is very high,” he writes. “Short-term hatchery stocking can be useful, particularly for conservation purposes, but large-scale programmes may harm the sustainability of populations.”
One-time world leader
Japan offers the perfect test case for an examination of the long-term economics of hatcheries given that it has “released the largest number of marine and salmonid species, often on a large scale,” according to Kitada.
Japan began industrial-scale ranching programs in 1963 and Kitada reports there are now 242 private hatcheries run mainly by fishermen or cooperatives. The Japanese focus has been primarily on chum salmon, fish larger and tastier than the pinks that predominate in Alaska.
Japanese chum stocking reached a peak of 2.1 billion young fish in 1991, but has since scaled back to 1.5 billion or so per year. Once the world leader in salmon ranching, Japan is now second to the U.S. where hatchery releases are primarily driven by Alaska’s massive ranching effort.
Japanese salmon return rates for chum today range from 3.6 percent plus or minus 1.1 percent on the island of Hokkaido to 1.6 percent plus or minus 0.6 percent on Honshu. Paying to breed and raise 100 fish to dump them in the ocean and get only about one and a half back is not good business, according to Kitada.
But Japan remains deep into ranching many species of fish – salmon, bream, flounder and mackerel – plus crustaceans and molluscs – scallops, abalone, crabs, and prawns.
When Kitada looked at the aquaculture efforts from a purely economic standpoint, he reached the same conclusion the Weyerhaeuser Corporation, British Petroleum and Union Carbide reached after a dozen years of ranching salmon in Oregon.
“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,” the UPI reported in 1985.
“But the pampered, pond-reared salmon couldn’t make 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. Fishermen bad mouth the quality of the fish and the state legislature, which once welcomed the huge corporate investments, has turned lukewarm on the idea.”
Unlike in Alaska, the big players in Oregon gambled on salmon that needed to be raised for a year in freshwater before being released into the ocean, a requirement that significantly increases hatchery costs. They also lacked for government assistance.
But even in Japan where the salmon are chums that require no freshwater rearing and with a supportive government, Kitada concluded that “all cases of Japanese hatchery releases, except Japanese scallop, are probably economically unprofitable if the costs of personnel expenses, facility construction, monitoring, and negative impacts on wild populations are taken into account. Stocking effects are generally small while the population dynamics are unaffected by releases but instead essentially depend on the carrying capacity of the nursery habitat. Hatchery rearing can reduce the fitness of hatchery fish in the wild, and long-term hatchery stocking can replace wild genes and cause fitness decline in the recipient population when the proportion of hatchery fish is very high.”
Despite this, hatcheries remain popular with many because they bring the fish to the fishermen rather than the fishermen being forced to go to the fish. A state-run hatchery supports one of Alaska’s most popular sport fisheries on Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage, and hatchery supported sport-salmon fisheries are popular in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington state, Oregon and California.
Saving the fish?
Scientists with NOAA’s Northwest Fishery Science Center and the Washington Department of Wildlife in November reported they might have found one way in which hatchery releases of salmon can harm wild fish.
They suggested hatcheries could be setting the table for predators.
“…Releasing large numbers of young salmon within a short time frame could make them vulnerable to opportunistic predators,” they reported in a peer-revied study published in the journal Ecosphere.
Both mergansers and spiny dogfish have concentrated “in the Salish Sea in response to high densities of hatchery salmonids,” they wrote. “Furthermore, these predators are capable of learned behavior; as hatchery releases become more predictable in time and space, we hypothesize that predators may increasingly congregate to opportunistically feed on pulsed hatchery releases and co‐mingled naturally produced salmon.”
They noted, however, that mass releases of hatchery fishery are a two-way street. On the one hand, a huge school of young hatchery fish could attract predators and increase predation. On the other hand, it could overwhelm those same predators.
“Alternatively, high densities of migrating juvenile salmonids have been shown to produce predator swamping effects, which result in lower mortality rates,” they wrote. “It is likely that such dynamics are unique locally and vary over space and time. Thus, it would be difficult to generalize these interactions to an ecosystem level without large, replicated experiments involving multiple hatcheries. While it is unclear from our results whether earlier or later releases would increase survival of hatchery Chinook, we found that variability in release date has generally decreased and that release dates among sub‐basins in both the Puget Sound and Georgia Strait have become less diverse for Chinook.”
The main point of their paper was that well-meaning humans have been dumping a lot of salmon in the ocean without knowing much about what they are doing, a problem that seems to be universal on the West Coast.
“For over a century, hatchery programs have been used to subsidize natural salmon populations in order to increase fisheries opportunities and, more recently, to conserve declining natural populations,” they observed. “While an extensive literature has described the impacts of large‐scale hatchery operations on freshwater ecosystems, less attention has been given to ecosystem interactions within the marine environment.”
In Alaska, almost nothing is known about these interactions, and the state Department of Fish and Game – once a leader in global salmon management – has said the issue is too complicated for it to study.
The state is lucky in that a warm North Pacific Ocean has generally favored both natural and wild salmon. As a result, Alaska salmon harvests have reached numbers unimaginable in the first decades after Statehood.
The state has seen fluctuations in some species – primarily sockeye, coho (silver) and Chinook salmon – at some times in some areas – notably Cook Inlet and the Copper River. But it is not facing the problem of “marine survival rates at chronically low levels,” as the Pacific Northwest scientists observed of that region.
Whether Alaska’s record abundance of salmon, boosted far beyond all historic precedents by the nation’s largest hatchery program, is having an effect on those PNW fish with which they share the Gulf of Alaska pasture is unknown.
But some Outside scientists have suggested possible connections, hypothesizing that a coastwide decline in Chinook is as simple as the biggest of the salmon proving unable to compete with the mobs of smaller sockeye, chum and especially pink salmon.
“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 research biologist Greg Ruggerone and Canadian scientists James Irvine have suggested.
“Pink salmon have never been more abundant than now,” they and six other scientists argued in a presentation to the 19th Salmon Ocean Ecology Meeting in Newport, Ore. in 2018. “During 2005-2015, pink salmon abundance averaged nearly 500 million fish with peak abundances of approximately 650 million fish in 2009 and 2011.
“Pink salmon are especially abundant in odd-numbered years, reaching 76 percent of all
Pacific salmon in peak years.”
All those hungry mouths reduce “the abundance of zooplankton, which in turn leads to a greater abundance of phytoplankton, zooplankton prey,” they argued, and the consequences of that change ripple through the entire ecosystem of the North Pacific with consequences for other salmon, seabirds, and marine mammals.
Correction: This story was altered from the original to include molluscs.