Whale tale

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.  

At Hidden Falls, reports the Good News Network, “salmon babies are released into the ocean to help an overfished population recover.”

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.

National Geographic joined in the spin, saying that “each April, a salmon hatchery in southeastern Alaska releases young fish into the sea, part of an effort to replenish overfished populations.”

And the Smithsonian Magazine picked it up from there: “The Hidden Falls Hatchery releases the salmon into the ocean as part of an effort to replenish overfished populations.”

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.

Huge success

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.

The harvest topped 4 million in 1996.

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.

Crafty critters

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.

The video on YouTube shows one whale now weasling into the bottom of a net pen and then nosing up through it as it gobbles salmon.

“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.

“At Hidden Falls, we are seeing less than 20,000 chum at the weir and barrier net with little activity in Kasnyku Bay,” the NSRAA blog reported on July 23. 

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.










5 replies »

  1. The problem is not the whales. The problem is us thinking we can make more salmon with hatcheries. That we could catch more fish if we just release more babies. This is not the way nature works. It is the carrying capacity of the ocean that limits salmon returns – not numbers of smolts. I can’t think of any animal, or plant, or microbe on Earth, or any earth, who’s productivity and abundance is limited more by reproductive capacity than carrying capacity? Anyway, wild salmon maintain the productivity of lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, and the mighty Pacific by spawning, dying, and fertilizing thousands of natal streams. They are literally dying for more. Hatchery fish are freeloaders to this ecosystem potluck and their nutrient mining is lowering the ocean’s carrying capacity for all biota. For hatchery fish to survive wild fish must die. Why spend money to make fish when Mother Nature will make more for free? Oh, and isn’t it illegal to feed wildlife?

    • You probably can’t think of a species not limited by carrying capacity because all species are limited by carrying capacity. Even simple organisms – think COVID-19 – are limited by carrying capacity.

      That is what herd immunity is all about. It decreases carrying capacity, and the virus is forced to struggle to survive.

      Your observation on hatcheries and nutrient mining is a good one. It is hard to say they lower carrying capacity for all biota. The ocean ecosystem is so complex it would be almost impossible to filter out the evidence to support that conclusion.

      But hatchery fish clearly are nutrient mining. In the U.S., we require environmental impacts statements for mining. And yet in this case….

    • Couldn’t think of a better argument for an onshore RAS system supplied by the hatchery. It has the extra added attraction of not importing workers from Outside, bringing in Wuhan Flu with them when they come. When (not if) AK embraces RAS, seafood workers become locals, employed full time. And we start however slowly, down the road of restoring balance between nutrients and the things that eat them in the North Pacific. Now if we can just talk the Russians and Japanese into doing the same thing….. Cheers –

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