The problem of predation at a hatchery in Southeast Alaska is going big-time in a slick video of a humpback whale invading a net pen to gobble salmon fry, and the state’s reputation for world-class salmon management could be the biggest victim.
As various websites tell it, the whale-plagued Hidden Falls hatchery on eastern Baranof Island exists to compensate for the damge done to wild salmon by overfishing in the north.
“The idea behind the hatchery is that juvenile fish born here can be released to repopulate the over-fished stocks of wild salmon,” says the narrator on the video produced by Terra Maters Factual Studio in Vienna, Austria.
Goods News bills those running the state-built operation later turned over to and now managed by the commercial-fishermen-funded Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Associaton (NSRAA) as “Shepherds of Salmon.”
That would make the humpback whales the wolves in this drama, but it’s the state getting the blame for a supposed salmon problem.
Chum salmon are not over-fished in Southeast Alaska and have not been for decades. The state built the remote Hidden Falls hatchery in 1979 as a production facility to help increase returns for commercial fishermen working in the Panhandle.
The hatchery and others like it are part of a program of salmon ranching and careful management which have – coupled with a warm North Pacific Ocean – delivered Alaska a decades long salmon bonanza.
A state which had trouble maintaning harvests of 100 million salmon per year in the 1970s has steadily upped its production decade by decade. Annual average harvests have grown to:
- 122.4 million per year in the ’80s.
- 157.5 million in the ’90s.
- 167.4 million in the 2000s.
- And approximately 180 million for the 2010s.
Outside media have, however, somewhat regularly fueled the idea Alaska’s salmon are in danger. The Nation magazine in a 2019 story titled “The Last Salmon” claimed the fish in Alaska “are increasingly challenged by climate change,” and the New York Times made similar claims.
Some scientists, on the other hand, have suggested the state might be producing too many salmon, especially hatchery pinks. They contend declines in sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon appear linked to their inability to compete for food in an ocean overstuffed with their smaller, more prolific cousins, the pinks.
The pinks, however, continue to swarm back to both Alaska streams and hatcheries by the tens of millions.
Hidden Falls with its predation problems is at this time a hatchery outlier. It wasn’t always this way. Less than a decade after management of the state-owned facility was transferred to the fishermen-run NSRAA in 1988, Hidden Falls was posting recording commercial harvests.
Everything then looked rosy for one of the aquaculture associations the Alaska Legislature empowered to assess a levy on the region’s commercial fishermen to pay for the operation of hatcheries.
The state later allowed the NSRAA and other regional aquaculture associations to go fishing as well to catch enough salmon to recover their operating costs each year. And the state has, at times, stepped in to help prop up the hatcheries that put money in the pockets of commercial fishermen.
In 2013, as the whale problems at Hidden Falls were just starting, the Alaska Legislature appropriated more than $1.2 million to upgrade the Hidden Falls hatchery which is now having problems getting enough salmon back to keep the operation running – let alone conduct a cost-recovery fishery to finance the hatchery.
Humpbacks, the numbers of which have been steadily increasing in Southeast for years, almost a decade ago first learned how to corner young, out-migrating salmon in the small bay where the hatchery raises fish. Since then, the predatory whales have only grown better and bolder in their feeding.
“She had a $13 million dollar, fine-dining experience – record breaking,” one commenter posted below the video, although it is unclear as to where from came that estimate of costs to the hatchery, which is enduring a tough season.
That return is about one two-hundreth of the number that used to come back in the good old days.
NSRAA did report returns were better to its Crawfish Inlet hatchery where it expected cost-recovery fishing to “occur until the full goal of $4 million dollars is harvested.”
To try to deal with the whales, Hidden Falls has shifted the timing of the release of salmon smolts, hauled some of the fish to remote release sites away from whales, and grown bigger smolts before release in the hopes that woul increase their odds of survival.
Given that the humpbacks are a federally protected marine mammal, the solution of removing the whales that cause problems is pretty much off the table although a few commenters on the YouTube video did suggest that.
Most, however, appeared to share the view of Cory Ernewein:
“Seems fair to me; she just wanted some lunch and we took her wild chances away.”
He apparently bought the idea that Alaska wild salmon are overfished to the point there is nothing for the whales to eat.