Though the Russian harvest is little noticed in Alaska, it now accounts for more than half of the global catch of wild salmon. And together Russian and its old colony account for 92 percent of the catch.
“The member countries’ portions of the total catch included 51 percent by Russia (499.2 thousand metric tonnes), 42 percent by the United States (406.9 thousand metric tonnes of which 401.9 thousand metric tonnes was caught in Alaska), 6 percent by Japan (59.5 thousand metric tonnes), and less than 1 percent by Canada (2.9 thousand metric
tonnes) and Korea (130 metric tonnes), respectively,” the international commission reported.
The Alaska catch amounts to nearly 99 percent of the U.S. harvest and about 41 percent of the ocean-wide total. The catch of the other U.S. states is greater than that of Canada but still less than 1 percent.
Led by big catches of pink salmon, average, decadal harvests have been at historic highs since the 1990s, according to NPAFC data. But more than half the fish by weight – 54 percent to be exact – are now low-fat, low-value pink salmon or “humpies” as Alaskans often call the fish that take on a characteristic shape as they move onto their spawning grounds.
The pink catch is driven by wild fish in Russia and hatchery fish in Alaska. Alaska dumped nearly 935 million pink salmon fry into the ocean in 2109, according to the report. The release was more than seven times that of Japan, the next largest producer of hatchery pinks.
Overall, Japan’s release of about 135 million pinks, nearly 1.8 billion chums and a smattering of sockeye and cherry salmon, put it ahead of Alaska in the business of free-range salmon farming.
Alaska, however, paced the U.S. to its position of global leader in netpen-free salmon aquaculture.
More than nine out of every 10 U.S. hatchery fish released in the ocean come from Alaska, and the 49th state accounts for more than 70 percent of all hatchery salmon originating from the West Coast of North America.
Along with 935 million pink salmon released in 2019, the report details releases of more than 689 million chum, more than 39 million sockeye, just under 33 million coho (silver), and 10 million Chinook (king) salmon.
About 98 percent of the more than 1.7 billion hatchery salmon Alaska releases are intended to support put-and-take commercial fisheries. The Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report 2019 from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says “approximately 41 million hatchery-produced salmon (were) harvested in the commercial common property fisheries” last year.
Another 9.2 million of those fish were caught and sold by private, non-profit hatcheries, mainly run by commercial fishermen, to fund their operations, the report says.
“An estimated 233,500 hatchery-produced salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic char, and grayling were harvested by sport, personal use, and subsistence users in 2019,” according to the report. “Hatchery-produced coho salmon were the greatest part of this harvest (119,000), followed by sockeye salmon (39,000), rainbow trout (35,000), Chinook salmon (15,000), pink salmon (12,000), landlocked salmon (9,000), Arctic char (2,300), chum salmon (2,000), and grayling (1,000).”
That latter harvest represents about 0.5 percent of Alaska hatchery production.
Most fisheries scientists believe the boom in Russia and Alaska harvests, along with the decline in Canada and U.S. West Coast harvests, is linked to general global warming in the northern hemisphere.
Earlier spring break up in Southwest Alaska and an increase in summer lake temperatures have led to “longer and more productive growing seasons,” University of Washington scientists who have been studying salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay for years reported in Nature in last June. “Earlier ice-off and warmer lake conditions are positively correlated with Daphnia spp. densities, a primary food source for juvenile sockeye and juvenile salmon growth.
“In the North Pacific Ocean, the primary rearing area for sockeye, there have been changes in (sea) surface temperature as well as upwelling and productivity. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and North Pacific Gyre Oscillation (NPGO) are inter-decadal shifts in sea surface temperature and upwelling that are strongly correlated with sockeye productivity in Alaska.”
All of these factors have spawned a boom in Bristol Bay sockeye salmon – Alaska’s most valuable fish – despite ever-increasing competition from hatchery fish.
“Recent estimates attribute 40 percent of Pacific salmon abundance to hatchery-produced fish, although this estimate is conservative as hatchery fish that spawn naturally are not counted,” the scientists added.
They, as have some others, questioned how much more hatchery production should be allowed to increase, warning that “continued augmentation of salmon stocks by hatcheries may undermine the complexity that enables thriving wild salmon populations.”
So far that hasn’t happened. Annual, decadal salmon harvests in Alaska have increased steadily since the 1970s. Where once salmon seasons with a statewide harvest of 100 million salmon were considered good, they are now considered bad.
The harvest last year topped 200 million for the fourth time in six years. It ended a decade in which the average annual harvests have grown to approximately 180 million salmon per year.
An Alaska friendly ocean
That average has risen significantly in every decade since the 1970s, according to Fish and Game reports. The agency reports decadal harvests of:
- 122.4 million on average per year in the ’80s.
- 157.5 million on average per year in the ’90s.
- 167.4 million on average per year in the 2000s.
The situation has not been so rosy elsewhere.
“In Canada, chum, sockeye, and pink salmon were the most abundant species caught (last year), but exceptionally low catches of these salmon species in 2019 resulted in the lowest total catches of salmon (2,973 metric tonnes) on record for Canada in the
NPAFC database dating back to 1925,” the commission reported.
“In Washington, Oregon, and California (WOC), Chinook, chum, and coho salmon are typically the most abundant species caught, but particularly low catches of chum, sockeye, and coho salmon in 2019 resulted in the lowest total catches of salmon (4,965 metric tonnes) on record for WOC in the NPAFC database.”
The NPAFC database stretches back 95 years. There has been increasing speculation that declines in salmon in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, which were once linked solely to hydroelectric dams and urban development, might also be suffering due to ever-increasing competition with Russian and Alaskan salmon at sea.
Canadian scientist David Welch and colleagues from Kintama Research Service in Nanaimo, British Columbia, have authored a paper claiming to have “found that marine survival collapsed over the past half century by a factor of at least four-to-five fold to similar low levels for most regions of the West Coast. 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 (human) impacts such as dams in the Columbia River or salmon farming in British Columbia.”
The paper is now undergoing peer review. It caused a bit of controversy when it first appeared on the preprint service BioRxiv last year. That was largely due to the suggestion that the biggest problem facing struggling Pacific Northwest salmon stocks is not dams or habitat degradation but ocean survival.
That has led to a usually lengthy peer-review process given the previous consensus that problems caused by dams and compounded by overfishing were the only problems plaguing Washington and Oregon salmon returns in general and those of the Columbia River in particular.