An Alaska seiner drags aboard a net full of pinks/Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Russia and Alaska continue to hog the harvests of North Pacific salmon, according to the latest report from the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC).

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.

salmon catches

North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission

Humpy madness

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.

Warming’s upside

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:

  • 56.2 million on average per year in the ’70s.
  • 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.

If Welch and his group are right, their findings would only compound problems for 27 species of U.S. West Coast salmon already on the endangered species list. 







8 replies »

  1. Do you know how much the commercial fishing industry contributes to hatchery production? Seems like the industry could be subsidized similar to industrial agriculture but don’t know enough about what they pay to the hatcheries/wildlife departments. Either way it’s time we reconsider the over engineered approach to fisheries management.

  2. Record high levels of wild and hatchery pink salmon returned as adults in the spring / summers of 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 to the coastal waters of the Gulf of Alaska.

    One can check the data on the return rate of all species of outmigrating salmon smolts for these years into these coastal waters, and contrast those rates with the Same return rates for same species in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018.

    Is there any divergence per these outmigrating salmon species based on off year year smolt class.

    If so, what would drive that (food competition) or if not, then a good indication that high abundance of pink salmon in coastal GOA waters does not seem to impact outmigrating smolt productivity and survival.

    The data will be there- folks just have to analyze it.

  3. We know so little about the ocean and are unlikely to ever learn enough to figure this out with standard research.

    The only method I see, which might get us the information needed to determine what the hatchery effect is, is to shut down the pink hatcheries for 2 to 4 years and see what happens to the other species.

    That’s not going to happen so all that remains is speculation, debating and the experts’ educated guessing with woefully inadequate data and with no hope of resolution.

    • Ken,
      We know quite a bit about what is termed “carrying capacity” of an ecosystem. Obviously, when the U.S., Canada, Japan and Russia pump 5 to 6 Billion hatchery salmon into the Northern Pacific it tends to have negative effects on all natural runs and other fish competing for space and food. To say that we know “so little about the ocean” is disingenuous at best. We all know damn well what happens when artificial methods are used to transport live species to other areas…we call these “artificially transported” species INVASIVE. The billions of mostly pink salmon in the Northern Pacific are no different in their destructive ways.

      • We don’t know what the oceans “carrying capacity” is.
        We don’t know how many of each species are out there. The margin of error in our estimates is huge.
        We don’t even know all the species that exist in the ocean.

        We do have some idea how the food chain works, but can’t follow the natural fluctuations and cycles at each level. That is all invisible to us.

        There are a lot of variables (changing currents, undersea volcanic activity, changing salinity, changing temperature and many more) that we know are always changing, but we don’t know all the causes of those changes.
        We are not capable of observing or tracking many of these changes.
        There are variables we have yet to become aware of.
        We don’t know how changes in each of these variables affects each species.

        The big picture problem is that almost everything happening in the sea is invisible to us. An occasional research expedition or some satellite data are interesting, but it is analogues to a visitor from another planet spending a couple hours observing downtown McCarthy. They will learn a little bit about that moment in time, at that place, but it won’t do much to help them understand how all the life on the surface of this planet interacts and behaves or, more relevant to the article above, to predict future behavior and outcomes. Like how many salmon will return to a river next year.

        We are making educated guesses and that’s the best we will be able to do. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to learn as much as we can, but it is best to accept our limitations and not buy into the illusion that we are ever going to understand nature well enough to make consistently successful predictions.
        A humbling realization for we humans who think we can understand and predict nature which has multiple times more complexity than our collective brains are capable or grasping.

      • This is what I wrote on the last article Craig authored dealing with the latest study into the W’s (who, what, when, where, why) of salmon life in Oceania:
        “It’s a big ocean out there and we’ve explored so little of it, most guestimate we’ve explored about 5-20% of all the world’s oceans. NOAA says they’ve charted about 35% of the US coastline, most of the charts for Alaska still have information from the early 1900’s, some with pre-1900 information.”
        In other words, we don’t know shit.

        I really enjoy the comparison of our oceans and space. More than likely we know more about space than we do our oceans. We also know that somewhere around 85% of the matter of the universe is made up of dark matter, we call it dark matter because we have NO IDEA what it is. We also know that somewhere around 68% of the energy of the universe is made up of dark energy, we call it dark energy because we have NO IDEA what it is. All of that assumes that we know that the 85% and 68% number actually mean anything to the universe.

        To pretend to think we know anything about what happens in our oceans is typical human hubris at best. Dumping billions of hatchery fish into the ocean most likely and most probably isn’t good for other species of salmonids.

  4. I am a bit confused. We know the warming pattern is being caused by PDO, but there is reference to ” most fisheries scientists…believe man-made Global Warming is responsible for the warming waters”.

    “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.”

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