Slim pickings

2020 salmon harvest

Alaska harvest is falling below 2018, which some thought a disaster/ADF&G graphic

Commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska’s Bristol Bay are wrapping up another banner season while around the Gulf of Alaska harvests increasingly look on target to register as the worst in more than three decades.

Not since 1988 has an Alaska salmon harvest failed to pass the 100 million fish mark, but it is threatening to come up short of that bar this year.

Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang on Tuesday refused to make a call on whether the catch will be that bad. He admitted, however, that it could be close.

“It all depends on what happens with the pinks,” he said. “Chums are under-performing everywhere in the state.”

So, too, all of the sockeye salmon runs with the exception of those in that big Bay in far southwest Alaska facing toward Russia on the opposite side of the Bering Sea.

The world-famous Copper River sockeye fishery opened for only seven, 12-hour fishing periods all summer, and the catch is below 100,000 fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). The Cook Inlet sockeye fishery has been so bad half the driftnet fleet has just stopped fishing, and the catch is under 600,000.

Together those fisheries produced a harvest that about 2 percent of the Bay’s catch of about 40 million sockeye. The tasty, red-fleshed sockeye are the state’s big money fish.

Lower-quality pinks and chums, however, usually account for the majority of the catch. And those fish combined with sockeyes account for 90 percent or more of commercial landings every season.

Small fisheries for coho (silver) and Chinook (king) salmon are economically important to some fishermen but are a tiny part of the total harvest.

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Way off pace

As of Monday, the statewide catch stood at 74 million with the bulk of those fish Bay sockeyes plus 22 million pinks from Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.

For comparison sake, the overall catch last year on the same date was pushing 129 million on the way to another year with a harvest of over 200 million salmon. It was only the eighth time in state history the harvest had passed the 200 million mark, but the fourth time in six highly productive years in the 2010s.

After the season, many were wondering how long the run of monster returns could continue. Twenty-twenty could be providing the answer.

Gulf runs of sockeyes, chums, cohos and kings have been “under performing,” as Lang put it, and pink harvests that should now be peaking aren’t.

The five-year, average pink harvest for the week ending Aug. 2 is more than 17 million fish, according to ADF&G data. It was a tiny fraction of that last week. Still, the five-year average does tend to misrepresent the nature of pinks in Alaska where the odd-year fish and the even-year fish are distinctly different animals, with odd-year returns dominant.

There has long been speculation among fisheries biologists that bountiful odd-year pinks so heavily graze the Pacific that a lack of food suppresses the population of even-year fish, but the theory has never been proven.

Discussions have, however, increased in recent years as sockeye runs have begun to mimic the odd-even pattern of pinks. The sockeye return to Cook Inlet in 2018 was a disaster. 

Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, pinks invariably come back to Alaska in lesser numbers in even years. In 2018, the harvest for the last week in July saw about 8.3 million pulled from nets and hauled to processors.  That was almost exactly half the five-year average, which is about the norm for an even year.

This year’s catch for the same week is down to 1.1 million. The pre-season forecast called for a 2020 catch of 61 million pinks. The harvest is only about a third of that.

“Landings for the species will need to improve significantly to meet
the ADF&G harvest projection,”  Garrett Evridge, an economist for The McDowell Group, observed in his weekly report for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Statewide, he noted chum harvests down 67 percent from last year and  sockeye harvests down 18 percent thanks to the collapse of the Copper River and the weak return to Cook Inlet.

Evridge puts the pink run on par with 2018 which came in at about 41 million. That’s 20 million shy of the 2020 forecast for that species. The low, 2018 catch of pinks helped make that year the second-worst of the 2010s for commercial fishermen.

When it was over, the all-species salmon catch was but 114.5 million salmon. Things are only looking worse this year with not only harvests numbers down but prices being paid for salmon only half to two-thirds of 2019.

“Those poor fishermen,” Evridge said Tuesday. “It’s tough.”

Pinks are yet to arrive in any number in the Panhandle, Lang said, “and the longer it takes, the more it looks like they’re weak, not late.” He was more optimistic pinks would show in the Sound to boost harvests there, but that is largely contingent on the bulk of the return coming a little later in August as it did last year.

If the run follows the pattern of 2018, it has already peaked.

2020 pinks


What happened?

As always, sorting out the reasons for weak runs is difficult. The Gulf-wide nature of this year’s phenomenon points to issues at sea, but there are outliers.

The Kasilof River on the Kenai Peninsula saw a larger than projected return of sockeye this year while only miles away the Kenai River, where a low return was already expected, saw a low below the low.

The Kenai did, however, appear to be getting a big return of pinks, which aren’t particularly favored by Inlet fishermen of any stripe, and the little Deshka River, a tributary to the Susitna River to the north of Anchorage, was getting swarmed with the fish most Alaskans call humpies.

Almost 150,000 of them have gone upstream. The Deshka, which flips the odd-even trend for pinks on its head, hasn’t seen pink returns of that size since the early 2000s.

Offshore, pinks continue to rule the ocean, said Greg Ruggerone, a research biologist in Seattle. Along with Canadian researcher James Irvine,  he has been tracking salmon numbers in the Pacific. The two are credited with writing the definitive paper on salmon abundance in 2018.

It calculated there are now more salmon in the Pacific than ever, but the population is heavily weighted toward pinks. They and other biologists have suggested the general decline in Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Northwest sockeye, king and coho numbers might be related to those species struggling to compete with pinks for food – think cattle versus sheep on the range in the old West.

The trend to humpies does not appear to be abating, Ruggerone said this week.

“Overall pink abundance was phenomenal in 2018…,” he messaged, “and 2019 was exceptional too. Nothing compares to the back-to-back large runs in ’18 and ’19.”

Commercial salmon seiners in Alaska – of whom there are few – have been big beneficiaries, but the Russians have been the biggest winners. Russian rivers have been flooded with pinks. 

Ruggerone is among those who suspect the large numbers of pinks are influencing the size of other salmon populations in the huge and complicated ecosystem that is the North Pacific.

“On the high seas, pink salmon and other salmon species often eat similar prey, including small fishes and squid, leading to reduced growth and survival when pink abundance is high,” he messaged. “Salmon migrate thousands of kilometers, so populations from distant regions overlap and compete for prey.

“In recent decades, pink salmon have represented nearly 70 percent of all salmon returning to North America and Asia, and their overall abundance continues to reach new highs.”

His preliminary estimate for the North Pacific-wide return of pinks in 2018 now stands at 700 million fish, the largest since detailed records began being kept in 1925. The 2019 return appears to have been only slightly smaller and the fourth largest on record.

He noted other researchers have now found evidence that “implicates pink salmon and early marine oceanographic conditions in the long-term decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon” in the Pacific Northwest, and there are indications that the Bristol Bay sockeye boom might have been even bigger if not for competition with pinks.

Questions are also starting to be raised about competition between a booming population of Bering Sea pinks and a declining population of kings in the Yukon River, which drains into the Bering Sea.

But definitively sorting any of this out is difficult, and to Alaska fishermen what really matters is simple: fish in the net. For that, it’s looking to a be lean year for many.





21 replies »

  1. My comment was actually directed to Ben V Alen.
    However, you do not have evidence either, of ocean carrying capacity maximization. No one can really account for the wild fluxuations in salmon returns, from hatcheries or streams.

    • Most of the 1970s was evidence of ocean carrying capacity maximization. Carrying capacity is a fundamental of ecology. It unfortunately varies with weather.

      Think Sitka blacktail deer in Prince William Sound. The carrying capacity would be huge if it wasn’t for those damn winters that bury all the food beneath snow and thus limit the size of the deer population.

      There is plenty of evidence of North Pacific carrying capacity for salmon now being at its or over its limit, starting with the steadily shrinking size of the fish. Meanwhile, there is evidence that in the current dynamic we are trading away Copper River sockeye for PWS hatchery pinks.

      Do you think that’s a good trade?

  2. You seem to think it is a given that ocean carrying capacity is the limiting factor in salmon returns. Where did you find evidence of this? It is far more likely that spawning/rearing habitat is the limiting factor…hence, more fry in the water yields more returning adults. And that has been the experience of Alaska hatcheries to date.

    • Why do you think PSWAC last year forecast a pink return of 4.3 million to 33.9 million to its hatcheries?

      Where do you think this difference comes from if not the carrying capacity of the North Pacific? Ocean survival is the only variable hatcheries have to deal with and they appear to think it makes a nearly eight-fold difference.

      Luckily, ocean carrying capacity was high enough last year that PSWAC did a lot better than 4.3 million pinks. How’s it looking this year?

  3. Seems like I recall from a recent article a Bay fisherman quoted as saying something along the lines of they can’t survive economically picking reds at these prices, and it seems like the prices were around $0.50 per pound. How could a guy make a living picking pinks for well less than $0.50 per pound if a guy can’t make a living picking reds at $0.50 per pound?

  4. For those who gain energy questioning everything and for those who should… here is the abstract from my presentation at the May 2018 Alaska/Western Division American Fisheries Society meeting:

    Title: Stand Tall, Go Wild
    Abstract: It is impossible to maintain healthy salmon stocks and fisheries in the face of industrial-scale hatchery releases. There is only one ocean and the production of salmon from the ocean is ultimately limited by its carrying capacity. Wild fish can fill this carrying capacity and only wild fish help to sustain it. It is the natural spawning and dying of millions of salmon in thousands of natal streams that helps maintain the productive capacity of our watersheds, estuaries, bays, straits, and ocean. Hatchery fish are elbowing their way into the ecosystem potluck without bringing a dish. The “nutrient mining” inherent with ocean ranching is lowering the productivity for all biota. The 1.6+ billion ”nutrient miners” now released from Alaskan hatcheries each year are in direct competition for space and food with wild fish. We observe declining and depressed runs of eulachon, herring, Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum Salmon wherever we have industrial scale hatchery programs. Why do we continue to think that the ocean is limitless and that we will have more salmon if we just release more salmon? Why allow hatcheries to employ whatever rearing and release strategies they can “afford” to provide their releases with a survival advantage over wild fish? Why allow hatchery strays? Why spend millions of dollars to supplant wild fish with hatchery fish? Instead of joining Japan and Russia as world leaders in ocean ranching nutrient mining we must stand tall and go wild for healthy runs and healthy fisheries. We all know the key to abundant salmon is to maintain the environment and maintain the spawners. Minimizing hatchery releases is critical to maintaining the environment and maintaining the spawners – and completely under our control. How can a hatchery fish help a wild one?

    … and a bonus poem from my closing slide:

    We All Know

    We all know…the recipe for abundant salmon
    Maintain the habitat
    Maintain the spawners
    …it takes fish to make fish

    We all know…we’ve not been following the recipe
    Too many hatchery fish
    Too many harvested
    …it takes wild fish to make fish

    We all know…what we need to do
    Close hatcheries
    Moderate harvests

    We just need to decide…when we should do this
    After the stocks collapse?

    … and, an answer to the question – why even or odd-year pink salmon? Simple. Crummy parent year escapements in the weak years. It takes fish to make fish. Lots of wild fish.

    Your blog mentioned the good returns of sockeye salmon to Bristol Bay and the poor returns of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River. We are lucky to have these two great “systems” with their long time series of spawner and return data to help us assess and understand the factors limiting salmon abundances and the consequences of our management actions. Thanks to return per spawner (RPS) data I received for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon from Alaska Department of Fish and Game on June 8, 2020, and for Fraser River sockeye salmon that I received from the Pacific Salmon Commission on June 10, 2020, we can “take a look at the data”.

    First, I’d say that managers have done a fine job of “managing for escapements” in both systems. Second, I’d conclude that the difference in productivity and returns between these system has a lot to do with there being no hatchery releases in Bristol Bay and huge hatchery releases since the late-1980s in and near the Fraser River.

    For Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, it is still, the more spawners the better for brood years 1963 to 2011:

    (oops, unable to include the more-the-better, 3:1 RPS, Bristol Bay figure here)

    For Fraser River sockeye salmon, it was the more-the-better with 5 adults returning for each spawner for broods 1952 to 1989 then dropping to 1.9 RPS in for broods 1990 to 2011 when millions of hatchery pink, chum, coho, sockeye, and Chinook salmon were/are being released:

    (oops again, unable to include the pre-hatchery/post-hatchery Fraser River figure here)

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment and thanks for raising the questions! Ben.

  5. Okay Steve,
    First of all, drift fishers, in PWS, can only fish in the Coghill & Eshamy districts. I will agree that close to around 75-90 drift boats are fishing pinks, this season, though that is not “EVERYONE”. It is about 14-17% of total drift fleet.
    Let us look at the actual numbers, found on the Adf&g website, under harvest by district:

    Coghill District cpf (common property fishery):

    7/20 38 hour 93 deliveries 87K pinks
    7/28 14 hour 90 deliveries 103K pinks
    8/1 14 hour 120 deliveries 93K pinks

    * after 7/21 “purse seine gear is allowed in the Coghill district”.
    So, the 7/28 & 8/1 harvests were both drift & seine. Will not know until later, what % was harvested by each gear group, though usually a 75/25 % split, with seine at 75.

    Eshamy District cpf:
    Drift & set gill net share district. Only district wilthin PWS, where set net gear is allowed.

    7/27 24 hour 89 deliveries 15K pinks
    7/30. 24 hour 99 deliveries 26K pinks
    8/3 24 hour 74 deliveries. 22K pinks

    I am not showing these numbers to defame, hurt or cause unrest for the hardworking commercial fishing fleet, which is doing whatever they can to survive a very lean season. I have picked many pinks myself out of a gill net and seine, during my fishing career in PWS/CR. This fleet is providing a 4/1 ex-vessel value to the communities, villages & municipalities, that surround PWS. Even Anchorage, Homer, Wasilla & many other towns benefit economically, since over 70% of PWS comm fishers reside in AK.
    The dollars stay here in Alaska.

    There are different agendas with this blog article and the comments, that I do not agree with. Main point being pink salmon is destroying all other AK salmon fisheries. Where are the facts? Pure conjecture!

    Instead let us focus on one of the many benefits, are f pink salmon;
    Let us discuss the value of salmon roe in “wild” fish, farmed are sterile. Roe, which is processed in AK, has a value equal to the flesh of pink salmon. 98% of all “cured” pink roe is exported to Japan, China & Russia. Farmed fish can only sell the flesh.

    One commenter, in a previous post, glibly stated they will figure that out. In your dreams!

    • James Mykland:
      What will it take for you to think that it is more likely than not that the release of Hundreds of millions to over a billion Pinks into PWS waters has a detrimental impact on other salmon species reared in PWS fresh waters. How bad do the returns of Sockeye and Chinook have to be to get your attention.
      Perhaps instead of criticizing Medred’s intentions , you might want to pay more attention to what is really happening. So many PWS com fishers just merrily go about their business and are almost like Ostrich’s who bury their head in the sand because they don’t want to know bad news. Don’t fall for the Infamous quote from the biologist ( who is responsible for this developing problem) when he uttered the words “correlation is not causation”. That phrase may go down in history as one of the most significant blunder in fish management anywhere.

    • James,
      Just curious,whats dockprice for chilled humpies.
      And expected wholesale price for packed roe(I’d be surprised if that figure is available,but 50% of retail would be a good place to start.)
      Ive picked humpies from web,no thanks

    • Sounds like a solution is to move pink production from ocean ranching to onshore RAS systems. Sooner would be better than later. Get the hatchery fry out of the ocean and into the RAS systems.

      And if pink roe is valuable, i expect the fish farmers will figure out how to raise pinks so they aren’t sterile. Cheers –

    • James: My only agenda is what is best for Alaska, and I certainly don’t believe hatchery pinks are “destroying” anything. There is no evidence to support such a conclusion or ever such a hypothesis.

      There is, however, plenty of evidence to support the hypothesis that the prolifertion of pinks is depressing Copper River and likely Cook Inlet sockeye production. More science is needed, not to mention an economic analysis.

      If we are producing enough low-value, hatchery pinks to push their total value above that of lost sockeye, I could live with that. Copper River and Cook Inlet drifters would take it in the shorts, but both the Copper and the Inlet are still producing far more than enough fish to meet sport fish, personal-use, subsistence and habitat enrichment needs.

      • To put this another way: There is more hard data out there that supports the notion that hatchery pinks are negatively impacting returns of other salmon species in Cook Inlet, Copper River, PWS, Southeast, than there is actual data supporting the notion that Pebble will kill all salmon in Bristol Bay for all time. Guess which notion we are acting upon. For extra credit: Why is that? Cheers –

  6. How about that Donald Trump Jr…what a surprise going against the Pebble Mine.
    This shows us how important guiding/tourism is to teaching Americans about the fragile resources up here in Alaska.
    Now, if we can bend Trump Jr’s ear to the damaged done by billions of hatchery salmon released into the ecosystem…maybe he will help us have a voice at the table.
    The only way this imbalance of artificial salmon will get cleaned up is when the feds step in since the state is too invested through loans in the commercial fishing industry.
    When you hold the bank notes to the system that runs hatcheries there is no incentive to change.

    • Steve Stine , good point you bring up. True Sportsmen are the ultimate conservationists. Skin in the game . Yeah don jr . Shocked me but I should have seen it coming. Don jr best / very close Freind jason ,founder of kuui aprx 50 mill value , who committed suicide 2018 was an avid hunter and sportsman. He had connections to alaska and zinke . Both Freinds had experience in Alaskas great backyard and they value alaska for what makes us stand appart and apparently don jr can think logically about the value of alaskan wildlife and communities. Evidently don jr respects ethics and long term values over dollar bills . I know there is a balance but huge kudos to don jr . Im glad alaska has an aily in the white house. Really prooves if Democrats would quit playing pretend politics to divide Americans into teams and rake in dollars to their coffers , Washington could actually get along and do whats right for everybody. The democrat party has been taken over by radicals who only worship their pocketbook. Corrupt nominating process- one of Creepiest political group ever – they fought and died to keep slavery-worship of violence or domestic terrorism – focus on division- race baiters – cancel culture- sell America out to china- ties to hitler nazi henchman soros – not to mention Hillary bill and assoiated pedophiles like Epstein and ed buck or young men and women traffickers-ties to baby killers or abortion protagonists margret Sanger( worshiped by nazis) – not to mention their destruction and enslavement of the poor in Americans big cities using momma tit free money to sedate and enslave the masses like feeding a bear or wolf destroys natural instincts of survival and self help. The list could go on but democrat politicians have pulled the wool over the eyes of good Americans . Their self serving or misguided efforts are subverting democracy. Globalist coherts who dislike the constitution and American independence of mind . Democrat politicians = One of creepiest organization ever . Let’s cheer for don jr being able to think out of the box and diregard politics in his rational opinion. Good job don jr .

    • The Dons are just playing a long game (defined as beyond 4 mos). When DJ runs, if trends continue, the country will be even more Left and he will be able to play his Anti-Trump card. Simple candidate positioning.

  7. Facts derived by watching a portion of the bow pickers switching over to Pinks. I take your point on the seiners but many do both and there lies the conflict – Dumping 1.8 Billion Pink fry in Alaska waters may be the culprit. When you have individuals and families working both fisheries who is gonna stand up and ask the question. As ADFG says(or close)-“Correlation does not necessarily mean causation”.

    • You said “many of flats bow pickers”. There are 545 Area E drift permits, small % of those permits, fish late July-early Aug for pinks, not many.
      So, I ask again what is this conflict you have stated?
      Let me guess! That PWS drift fishers do not want the hatcheries incubating pink salmon eggs?

      PWSAC also produces sockeye, chum & coho, which drift fishers do target/harvest. If all of the Area E salmon fishers do not want what PWSAC is doing, they can serve on the BOD and change the agenda.
      Has not happened yet.

  8. 7 openers for the Cordova fleet is worse than I thought. Maybe Cordova District Fishermen United need a fresh look at their situation. Unfortunately, many of the flats bow pickers are also used for the Pinks so there is built in conflict.

    • WTF? Where do you derive your facts from?
      Majority of PWS/CR drift fishers do not target/harvest pink salmon, so there is no conflict. The majority of pinks are harvested by the seine fleet, in PWS.

      CDFU? What is your point here? What situation are they going to look at?

      • James,
        I have a friend who operates a drift net fishing boat in PWS.
        For nearly 20 years he has fished the waters in PWS and near the mouth of the CR.
        He used to focus on sockeye primarily but now goes after the pinks for the shear volume, he told me that is what everyone is doing these days to survive?

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