Management mythology

sockeye mob

Sockeye salmon crowd the mouth of the Brooks River in Bristol Bay/NPS photo

In the strange, pandemic world of today, one of the unintended victims of the coronavirus COVID-19 could be the regularly and often loudly stated danger of “over-escapement” of salmon into Alaska streams and rivers.

Commercial fishermen, especially those fishing Cook Inlet at the front door of Anchorage, have long claimed threats of environmental damage from salmon crowding state waterways in arguing for increased commercial catches to put more money in their pockets.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA) even went to court to force federal officials to take over management of Inlet salmon because of state actions the organization argued were causing “environmental and economic injuries related to over-escapement,” as court documents put it.

The over-escapement theory is simple. It goes like this:

If too many salmon escape the nets of commercial fishermen, they plug streams and rivers with their bodies and some die before spawning. But the successful spawners still produce so many young that the mass of them competing for food means more death for salmon fry and results in the survivors going to sea as smaller and weaker smolts, which are also prone to die.

The belief is that the ultimate, end result of all of this is that fewer salmon survive to return to spawn as adults.

And fisheries biologists generally agree over-escapement can reduce a river’s “yield” in much the same way that over-planting a potato patch can reduce the production of tasty tubers. There is a significant difference between potatoes and salmon in that the latter suffer huge variations in survival at sea that make yield harder to calculate, but the theory is much the same.

Commercial fishermen have, however, pushed over-escapement way beyond a yield issue.

“Continued excessive escapements will…result in poor returns and the eventual collapse of the fish stock,” UCIDA claims.

“Over-escapement is not a myth. Whether escapement goals are exceeded or escapement goals are set too high, salmon populations are at risk when they exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat.”

The region’s most powerful fishing lobby has repeated this claim so many times that some in Alaska now believe over-escapement does put salmon populations “at risk.” The belief is so widespread that a couple of the top fisheries researchers in North America this week moved to stick a fork in it.

It is a myth

“Concern that the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery represents a substantial public health risk has prompted requests for severe restrictions or even complete closure of the fishery until the threat of COVID-19 has passed,” University of Washington scientists Daniel Schindler and Curry Cunningham wrote in a commentary published in National Fisherman magazine on Tuesday. “…These discussions have generated widespread concern about ‘over-escapement’ – that severely restricted fishing would result in spawner abundances (escapements) beyond what watersheds can withstand, thereby severely depressing future salmon production.”

Bristol Bay is home to Alaska’s most profitable salmon fishery. The fourth-largest run in Bay history was worth a record $306.5 million to fishermen last year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish Game.

The catch this year – if there is a fishery – is unlikely to come close to that given the difficulties of ramping up any food processing business in the middle of a pandemic with an indeterminate end. This has fueled over-escapement fears, but Schindler and Cunningham said there is no reason to worry.

Neither the last 60 years of data on human harvests of sockeye salmon in the Bay nor the prehistoric record support the idea that not fishing will seriously harm salmon runs.

“The myth of over-escapement is an unnecessary distraction and should be dropped from these discussions,” they wrote. “The fish will be just fine no matter what the outcome is for the 2020 season.”

The best argument that the fish can survive without being caught is recorded in the beds of Bristol Bay lakes.

Reconstructions of unfished, prehistoric salmon runs based on nitrogen isotopes decaying salmon carcasses left behind in lake beds “show that the sustained abundance of salmon prior to the development of commercial fisheries was comparable to the abundance (the sum of catch and escapement) observed over the last few decades,” the scientists observed.

A state study more than a decade ago reached conclusions similar to those of Schindler and Cunningham, but state biologists were able to find three cases in which “returns per spawner fell below replacement for two to five years following consecutive over-escapements that were greater than twice the upper escapement goal range.

“These observations were consistent with results from whole lake experiments that have shown that overgrazing by large fry populations for 2 or more consecutive years caused the highest level of restructuring of zooplankton populations and the slowest recovery time. However, as seen in the review of salmon stocks in British Columbia, we did not observe long-term stock collapse of any of the 40 stocks that could be attributed to

The real issue

The serious Bay issues needing attention, Schindler and Cunningham added, are not biological but economic and social as is the case in fisheries across the state be they commercial, sport, subsistence or personal-use. The scientists expressed hope that plans could be developed to allow for fishing in the Bay while minimizing the risks the infectious disease poses to humans.

“The collective creativity of our communities is in high gear, developing scenarios and their associated risks for how a fishery might operate without compromising public safety,” they wrote. “The social and economic costs of severely restricting the fishery are enormous, and any decision to do so needs to be balanced against the public health risks that fishery operations pose to local communities and fishery participants.”

State officials are still weighing the interrelated issues of health risks, health consequences and possible protective measures. One of the problems in the Bay is that the fishermen are old.

“Currently, 26 percent of non-resident permit holders in the drift fishery are over the age of 60,” Jesse Coleman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported in an August study.

Non-residents make up 55 percent of the fishermen in the Bristol Bay drift net fleet, and another 26.5 percent of the fleet journeys to the Bay from elsewhere in Alaska to fish during the short summer season, according to the state Commercial Fishery Entry Commission. 

The average age of Alaska resident fishermen is even older than that of the non-resident permit holders, according to Coleman’s study. That would put somewhere around a third of the drift fleet – or more than 620 fishermen – in the COVID-19 threatened, over-60 age group.

Data on the disease from around the world indicates older people are in no greater danger of catching COVID-19 than younger people, but if old people do catch it they are in significantly more danger of dying.

The global data show case-fatality rates accelerating with age with the big jump generally coming for those over 60 or already compromised by obesity, heart disease, diabetes or a variety of chronic illnesses.

Many of Alaska’s older commercial fishermen, having spent more time in the skipper’s chair than that health club, are not exactly pantheons to the value of fitness. The coronavirus could well pose more of a threat to them than to the Bay residents who want them to stay away, but many fishermen are not the sort to worry about such things.

Given that, the most worrisome concern in the Bay might be that if fishermen get sick and require hospitalization, they suddenly become someone else’s problem, and the region’s medical facilities are very, very limited.

The “seasonal influx of thousands of harvesters and workers from around the world, starting in May, represents a substantial risk for introducing COVID-19 to remote communities – where it has yet to be detected, and where people are particularly vulnerable and medical resources are distinctly limited,” Schindler and Cunningham wrote. “Further risks are associated with the often crowded conditions aboard fishing vessels and in fish processing facilities that create perfect conditions for the rapid spread of COVID-19.

“…It is clear that concerns for the negative ecological impacts of exceptionally high escapements should be dismissed. Instead, decisions should focus on balancing human health risks and economic impacts.”








21 replies »

  1. The fish will come back no matter what. The question is in what numbers will they come back after a massive influx of fish into the stream systems of Bristol Bay and how long will it take for the runs to return to optimal levels? 5 years, 10 years, 25 years? Should we take this chance based on a faulty IHME Covid19 Model that has been proven to be wildly inaccurate?

  2. If the Bay were to be shutdown completely, and that won’t happen, then there will be consequences for putting 20-50 million fish into all the river systems in the Bay.

    The rivers in the Bay have already had a couple years of what would normally be called overescapment. Drop in the additional millions this year and it will impact runs for years to come, without a doubt. It won’t put the long term survival of the species at risk by any means. These salmon survived before our fisheries and will survive after them, but they also went through boom and bust cycles.

  3. “Over-escapement,” “over-harvesting,” “global warming,” “Covid-19,” all these terms will be moot if the Pebble Mine is allowed to be built and operated for years. When Pebble’s containment dams fail or their slurry pipeline breaks the Lake Iliamna system will be polluted to the point that the major contributor to the Bay’s red salmon fishery will be decimated for decades, if not forever.

  4. I do not have a business either large or small but, if I did, I would meet with my lawyers, prepare lawsuits, and open. Time to rebel!!! The time has come to put this foolishness aside. A depression will kill more people then this virus ever will. Wisconsin (Democrat of course) just extended another month..for WHAT??? Govenors are playing politics with your life and livelihoods. Revolt going forward!!!

  5. Craig it is a fairly good article as you noted overescapement discussions are about yield. There is no myth here. ADFG uses models to set goals that aasume in the algorithm lower yields at higher escapements above Maximum Sustained Yield. Also even Dr Cunningham in a review of Kenai sockeye goals notes the brood year interaction model produces best yield with a varying escapement goal. UCIDA comments about long term production are not true in the data sets but we have to remember we manage fish stocks to keep potential system impact minimal if possible. UCIDA is pushing their position based on some limnology work down on a barren lake after stocking in Lower Cook Inlet. In this case the prey population collapsed and a basic change did take place. This is far from a natural system so I tend to think it is better to stick with yield discussion. At the levels we talk about long term impacts to the health of the stock is not an issue, especially for rare events like the present.

    One point everyone should note is be consistent with how one uses the term over escapement. Note whether you are talking about yield or health of the stock. Also what species. Finally what system. Sockeye limitation in a glacial system are different than a clear water system and the amount of available spawning area. Generalized statements really do not apply

    • Kenneth-
      Do you remember that season in the 80s when Bristol Bay went on strike? I have heard many comment that the “over-escapement” in that year set the stage for our record runs now. Any truth there?

  6. There was a year in the 80’s when the commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay did not fish because the price was too low to justify fishing. What was the run size 3 years later? I remember flying the Kvichak River with reds nose to tail 50 fish wide up both sides.

      • Bill and Bob. Your memory is faulty. The returns off the 1980 run, when 40 million fish went up the Kvichak was poor. 1-3 fish and 2-4 fish were weak. Also– take a look at the 90’s, when ADF&g managers wanted 10 mil. up,the Kvichak and kept it mostly closed to achieve that. Returns had trouble matching the parent year.
        One may be able to over escape the Kenai River without much of an issue….putting an extra few hundred thousand fish in that river has no relation to putting and extra million in Talarik Cr. a creek that one can walk across in hipboots. I flew Lake Illiamna and Lake Clark in the over escapement years. There were huge numbers of fish that could not get in the creeks, thus were pooled at the mouth. The issue in a small watershed is spawning on top of each other. It is not about survival of a species. It is about a managed yield. ADF&g has done a superior job with that the past 20 years.
        Clovis is a real danger, so is a wrecked economy. You can pick and choose or try to balance with the least amount of damage to both.

  7. Speaking of “Management Mythology”, listening to Dr. Zink speak is like an old episode of the “X files”…back in the 1990’s there was an episode titled “The Pine Bluff Variant” in which a bioweapon was released on the population.
    Dr. Zink talks of “surveillance” and “letting go of how things were” in replacing with a “new norm”?
    She mentioned Sweden yet she never mentioned how 20 percent of this country (U.S.A.) has NO lockdown or “shelter in place “?
    Ed Snowden said we are currently faced with the “architecture of oppression” and this is our chance to say NO thanks.
    Whatever happened to “Natural Immunity” and strengthening the immune system?
    Why are no MD’s speaking of Vitamin A, Vitamin D and Vitamin C…getting outside and exercising?
    Instead we are told to be scared of an invisible enemy and surrender our Liberties to Big Brother and the International Pharmaceutical Cartel?
    “An approach to the virus grounded in science — as opposed to omnidirectional prophecies of doom — would consider the question of why many serious infections appear to be nosocomial, which is a fancy way of saying acquired in the hospital, not from playing tee ball.”
    Governor Dunleavy is letting fear guide him instead of strength and Constitutional Principles…
    What ever happened to “Medical Freedom” in America?
    This China model coming down from the WHO will destroy families, friends, freedom, and small businesses throughout America.
    Please take the time to research the International Cartels led by huge pharmaceutical organizations like IFPMA and Bill Gates with his organization called GABI…these folks along with Merrick, Dr. Fauci and the CCP of China are leading the lockdown/ surveillance push across the globe with one direction towards more medical mandates and forced vaccinations of everyone.
    Alaskans need to follow citizens in other states like Ohio, N.C. and Michigan and stand up for our rights…especially the freedom of association and ability to gather/ protest in groups which is guaranteed by the Constitution.
    Big brother can recommend guidelines but forcing us into a new way of disconnect forever is not going to happen.
    If Dr. Zink wants to let fear guide her into isolation in her yert that is fine, but please do not dismantle 250 years of personal freedom and Liberty in America.

    • Just more examples of Democrats at all levels of our society – Federal, State, and Local levels, our Judicial, and our education system, etc.. I get it, Dunlevey is a Republican…yadda.. The GOP caved under the Covid pressure, but all in all, when you have Commie sympathixing Dems this is what you get Steve – “The WORKERS, the PARTY, the COLLECTIVE, etc..”..

      • Bryan,
        I think it took us all a few weeks to understand what was fully happening here, but now as protest erupts around the country and govenors are still focused on the lockdowns…we have to wonder what comes next?
        Berkowitz wanted to bring in the National Guard and turn Anchorage into a “police state”…
        “Request 24/7 patrols every hour throughout the Boeke/Sullivan Mass Shelter complex from 16th Avenue on the north; Gambell Street on the east; 20th Avenue and the Chester Creek Trail to the south; and A Street to the west,” the request reads…”
        Luckily the National Guard commander denied his request and suggested:
        “Rather than a National Guard deployment, the city should “consider employing a private security contractor to provide additional unarmed security,” Olmstead said.”

      • Unfortunately Trump looks like he is not going to step in and open things up, but instead allow states to call their own shots as to the “when & how.”
        In Alaska the medical community has become a modern harlequin for big Pharma and government lockdown.
        Speculations and fear mongering prevent elected leaders from acting.
        “Please, continue to stay socially isolated,” said Dr. Keri Gardner, chief medical officer for Alaska Regional Hospital…
        Keep Alaska from becoming another New York City.”
        I mean honestly how the heck could Alaska possibly become a NYC….there is like 40 million people in NYC….maybe 400K in Anchorage tops?
        Nyc has an average population density of 26,000 per square mile (double in Manhattan).
        With a population density of 1 person per square mile, Alaska never should have had a shelter in place….the economy and future depression will be way worse than this flu.

  8. Those who state overescapement is a myth are the first to state we are dumping too many hatchery fish into the ocean. You can’t have it both ways. Either a range has a limited carrying capacity or it doesn’t.

      • Possibly, Kevin. One only has to look at hare population cycles to see that an extremely large population of a species can sometimes result in low populations of that species in future years.

    • So Gunner, are you saying that hatchery returns are just like wild fish returns. I thought that hatchery fish, say like in PWS, return to where they were put into the ocean while wild stocks return to their spawning locations which unlike hatchery locations are generally way up a river system. Unlike wild stocks there is an attempt to catch every hatchery fish that returns. Do you not see the difference?
      Hatchery fish generally are sometimes considered to over compete with wild stocks for food. While wild stocks are argued to over compete for spawning areas and for food the first year. Hatchery fish don’t have to compete for spawning habitat or food the first year as they are carefully fed by the hatchery.
      I have read many of your comments and it seems clear that you are a Comm fisher. That’s cool. But your bias with out a rational bias is sometimes on display when you make comments like your post here.

  9. Shutting down Bristol Bay, Denali, etc.. an enviros wet dream.. This whole Covid-19 experience has me thinking where have I seen all this before..?? I just subsitute Covid-19 with “Global Warming”.
    The financial impact, the over-reaching, gestopo tactics, re-education, public shame, bogus numbers and charting, lies, lies and more lies..
    Just like “Global Warming”, why the need to lie about Covid death numbers? Money of course and lots of it. SCUMBAGS. I know “Foxnews”..Ah go believe the lies your master feeds you then..

    “President Trump on Wednesday claimed that New York City was inflating its COVID-19 death toll after health officials released new data that added 3,700 victims who were believed to have had the virus’ symptoms but were never tested.

    The latest figures, released Tuesday by NYC’s Health Department, rose the death toll to more than 10,000, making the city one of the major epicenters of the pandemic

    see this morning where New York added 3,000 [sic] deaths because they died. Rather than [a] heart attack, they say heart attack caused by this,” he said during the daily briefing of the Coronavirus Task Force, referring to COVID-19.”

    • You can do a little math by dividing the number of jobless claims by the current number of dead. Nationwide, over 22 million new jobless claims and 24,000 dead. Do the math, and we have so far sacrificed 916 jobs / dead American. Here in AK, it is even worse, with nearly 50,000 new unemployment claims and 9 dead. Do the math on that one, and we have sacrificed 5,500 jobs / dead Alaskan.

      There is other math that you can do. For instance, in 2012, OMB decided the value of a human life is around $8 million. The old insurance actuarial tables pegged it at $2 million. Your mileage may vary. But plug in the $8 million figure and you come up with some astounding numbers. Nationwide, the 24,000 dead have a value of $192 billion. Congress just passed legislation to address economic damage caused by the shutdown over 11 times that. Here in Alaska, those 9 dead have an economic value of $72 million. How many hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars of economic destruction are we wreaking on ourselves with the shutdown?

      Of course, the value of a human life varies based on how close you are, ranging from near infinity for your own to the value of a random homeless druggie sleeping on Campbell Creek. But we are well past the point where the cure is worse than the disease. Cheers –

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