The big bust

The great salmon crash/Greg Ruggerone graphic


The 2020 decline in North Pacific salmon numbers appears to have been the greatest in recorded history, according to a trio of scientists who’ve spent much of their careers studying the secret lives of salmon in the ocean.

They suggested to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC), an international monitoring group, that the crash was likely driven by warmer ocean waters and an explosion of pink salmon in 2018 and 2019.

“We hypothesize that a tipping point was reached in the North Pacific Ocean, leading to the substantial decline of all five species of Pacific salmon in 2020. We infer that the tipping point was caused by the combined effects of unusually frequent marine heatwaves since 2014 and exceptional back-to-back year abundances of pink salmon in 2018/2019,” Seattle-based fisheries consultant Greg Ruggerone and colleagues James Irvine and Brendan Connors with Fisheries and Oceans Canada told the NPAFC during a virtual meeting.

As with the 2018/2019 peak in salmon abundance – driven largely by pinks – the 2020 collapse was unprecedented, they noted:

“Unexpectedly, the high abundance of Pacific salmon came to an abrupt end in 2020. Preliminary commercial catch statistics for all salmon species indicate Pacific salmon harvests, which provide an index of abundance, declined more in 2020 than in any other period on record since 1930.

“Commercial salmon harvests declined by approximately 187 million fish compared with average harvest during the previous 10 years. Although the Covid-19 pandemic may have reduced commercial harvests to some extent in some regions, most fishery reports and preliminary escapement estimates indicate low abundance rather than harvest impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic led to unusually low harvests of Pacific salmon in 2020.”

Chinook – the longest-lived and biggest of the fish, the salmon Alaskans simply call “kings” – took the biggest hit.

“Harvests of Chinook salmon in 2020 were the lowest on record since 1925, declining 54 percent compared with the previous 10 years,” they wrote.

North Pacific kings have been in a steady downward trend for years. In a peer-reviewed study published in Fish and Fisheries last fall, scientists from Kintama Research Services in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, have documented a 65 percent decline in survival for Chinook spawned in the streams from the northern end of the Alaska Panhandle south along the Alaska and Canadian coasts all the way to Oregon.

Though the study did not include Chinook spawning systems north of the Panhandle because of a lack of data, the kings of the Copper River, Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island appear to have declined in number along with all the other Chinook stocks that spend their lives in the Gulf of Alaska.

“The abundance of salmon in the North Pacific has reached record levels,” the Kintama researchers wrote. “However, most of the increase is in the two lowest valued species (pinks and chums) in far northern regions, at least in part due to ocean ranching.

“In contrast, essentially all west coast North American Chinook populations including Alaska are now performing poorly with dramatically reduced productivity.”

That trend only grew worse in 2020 as the overall boom in abundance turned into a big bust with pinks, the big driver of record catches, down 40 percent and chums down 42 percent, according to Ruggerone and colleagues.

Chums and pinks are the two species most extensively free-range farmed in the North Pacific. The U.S. is now the world leader in this sort of salmon farming with Alaska producing about 90 percent of the hatchery fish. 

“Most pink salmon are of natural origin,” Ruggerone, Irvine and Connors observed, “but abundance of hatchery pink salmon during 2005 to 2015 was greater than abundance of wild chum salmon and approximately equal to abundance of wild sockeye salmon.”

Wild sockeye have been booming in hatchery-free Western Alaska because of environmental changes due to global warming, but the species has not been doing nearly as well in Gulf of Alaska streams.

Fading fisheries

The 2020 commercial harvest in Cook Inlet of “approximately 1.2 million salmon was 65 percent less than the recent 10-year average harvest of 3.2 million fish,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The fishing was even worse off the mouth of the Copper River.

“The Copper River had one of the weakest sockeye salmon runs on record with minimal fishing opportunity and the third smallest commercial harvest in the past 50 years,” the state agency reported. “The sockeye salmon commercial harvest of 102,269 fish was 92 percent less than the 10-year harvest average of 1.3 million fish.”

Historically, Cook Inlet and the Copper River support two of the state’s largest fisheries for Gulf of Alaska sockeye. The Inlet fishery just south of Alaska’s largest city is only just beginning, but another weak return is forecast.

A weak return was also forecast for the Copper, and it has turned out to be worse than expected. With the run there past its peak, the catch is reported at under 195,000 sockeye – better than last year but less than percent of the forecast harvest of 652,000. 

When the sockeye return to the Copper started off weak, the state closed many of the regularly scheduled fishing periods in late May and early June, and though the fishery is now open, many fishermen have deserted it in hopes of finding better fishing elsewhere.

Only 82 boats reporting landing fish on Thursday, according to Fish and Game. That’s down from a peak of 451 on May 24. Average landings of more than 150 per boat were the best of the season, but the overall catch was less than 12,500 fish. 

Unfortunately for them, an estimated 70 percent of the return is usually in river by now.

The good news is that sockeye and Chinook runs are almost everywhere looking better than in 2020, and the state is predicting an overall harvest of more than 190 million salmon, almost twice the 100 million that used to be considered a good season in the 49th state.

The catch, however, is forecast to be driven by those booming Bristol Bay returns and pinks, or what Alaskans often call “humpies.” About a quarter of the fish are expected to be Bay sockeye with another 65 percent pinks.

“If realized, the 2021 forecasted commercial harvest of 190.1 million salmon will be substantially larger than the harvest of 2020, mostly due to the projected harvest of pink salmon,” Fish and Game conceded. 

Pinks are the smallest and least valuable of the state’s salmon. Last year, the state reports, they averaged less than three and half pounds and were worth 30 cents per pound to commercial fishermen.

Sockeye averaged over 5 pounds on average and brought 76 cents per pound on average. The catch of 46 million ended up worth nearly $180 million to commercial fishermen, about three times the value of the larger, 59.5-million catch of pinks.

Chinook topped 11 pounds average weight and $5 per pound. But the season-long catch of less than 257,000 was but accounted for but 0.2 percent of the 2020 harvest of 117 million. 

CORRECTION: This is a revised version of an earlier story. It was edited to clarify that the Kintama study found a 65 percent decline in survival of Chinook.














15 replies »

  1. It is clear that in general, spawning Alaska salmon are getting smaller and the declines are most stark for Chinook or King salmon.
    These changes are especially pronounced in the past 15-20 years, mostly due to younger age class at spawning.

    For the state of Alaska, the trend in spawning run size has not been good:

    Low 2021 runs of King (Chinook) Salmon continues in many drainages in Alaska:
    Declining Cumulative Counts
    River 2021 2020 2019
    Gulkana 24 132 2,988
    Nushagak 2,228 7,814 15,945
    Kenai Kings restricted to catch & release,
    Anchor River and Deep Creek closed to fishing by emergency order
    Nushagak-Mulchatna Drainages King Salmon limits reduced by emergency order

    Subsistence and personal use fishing has been closed within the Yukon River drainage (including the Tanana River drainage).

  2. If this continues Alaska will have to grow their hatchery smolts an extra year, and be honest and responsible fish farmers.

  3. 6/28/2021, King salmon through the Deshka weir are already 50% greater than last years total number. Reason no King Sport fishing has been allowed on the Susitna Drainage for years. Years.
    King restrictions including catch and release must be put into effect on the Kenai River run until the Kings rebound. Limit the number of commercial sport fishing guides on ALL Alaska rivers. Period no bending, no excuses. Send the Johnnie come lately seasonal sport fish guides back to Oregon forever.
    Cook Inlet Set Net and Drift boat permit Buy back by the State of Alaska must happen. To many commercial fishermen, to few fish. Targeted restrictions on the coastal areas where salmon may be commercially harvested needs to be imposed.
    On the Biology I will defer to the experts, but one must ask are Pink Salmon worth so much to so few to risk what all Alaskans prefer Kings,Reds,and Silvers?

  4. They keep saving them.

    Location: Glennallen
    Type: SAR
    Dispatch Text:

    On 6/26/21 at approximately 1959 hours, Glennallen AST received a report of a rafting party of 7 stranded on the Tonsina River near Kenny Lake. The party had lost a raft in the water and their second raft was stuck in a log Jam. AST and VPSOs responded to the area with four-wheelers and were able to locate them. All parties were brought back to the highway and were checked by EMS. No one was injured.

  5. Although a freshwater solution doesn’t solve everything, one aspect may help a little. Fish & Game can keep purposeful snagging illegal, yet require fish accidently snagged be part of the person’s limit. Studies have shown that salmon fought to exhaustion often don’t make it to the spawning area. Fish snagged usually fight longer than those hooked in the mouth. Also, some hook wounds are debilitating. An additional plus: implementing this rule would get people off the river sooner and make for a less crowded experience.

  6. Some fishery “scientists” have found a convenient alibi for their incompetence in “warming oceans”. Too frequently they overlook overfishing, habitat destruction & bycatch concerns. Several years ago wildly expanded Pacific cod quotas most likely caused a collapse in the Gulf of Alaska cod fishery, but the scientists involved in this error had a ready made excuse of “warming oceans”. Now, despite warm water in the Gulf, the cod are returning. Let’s hope fishery managers won’t make the same mistake twice & adjust the commercial cod quotas to a sustainable level!

  7. Just another “trust the science” story that is blaming unprecedented declines on the warming oceans.
    Sure the warm water plays a role in the decline, but so too does the billions of hatchery salmon added to the ecosystem along with oil & gas drilling and fracking (along with leaky gas lines) in the Cook Inlet.
    Add in over harvesting for the last 30 years along with habit destruction along the fresh water stream these salmon use to reproduce and you get a glimpse at the bigger picture.
    After this last year of covid idiots printing off scientific garbage, I am more inclined to ask “who” payed for this study and exactly who the scientist are representing here with their “hypothesis”.
    After all, science is testing your idea with data, if the scientists don’t feel oil & gas fracking is an issue then they probably did not spend much time testing against a control group in the Cook Inlet.
    After all this is not just a decline in Salmon in this area as clams and other aquatic species are also in rapid decline which is forcing the remaining Beluga whales to leave the inlet and venture up rivers in search of food.
    The entire ecosystem is at verge of collapse in my opinion and “science” continues to ignore one of the largest causes of this decline.

    • Steve,
      Thanks for making it abundantly clear that you do not believe in science and that science does not support your completely incorrect opinions.

      • Steve O,
        It is perfectly ok to question the “science” when it is produced by the very people that have been charged with the management and sustainability of the resource. And those people work for ADF&G. The biologists and commercial / sports fishing Managers have refused to accept responsibility for the mistakes they have made and continue to blame it on conditions they have no control of. Like warming, high seas harvest, etc.
        The best example of what might be the greatest blunder of all time occurred when the chief State hatchery biologist stated that the huge decline in wild stocks in the Gulf was only correlation but not caused by the hundreds of million pink salmon fry being released every year in the gulf. State employees do not get promoted or get paid more for making mistakes. So, the mantra is “ It’s not our fault”.

      • AF,
        Don’t get me wrong, if anything science is by definition the questioning of everything including science. The wholesale denial of science as illustrated by Steve is a completely different story. Belugas have swum up rivers for countless eons, clams are booming in some places and not doing so well in others which is a cycle that has gone on for eons and has many causes…in some places the sea otters we no longer hunt are the cause due to overpopulation, the entire ecosystem is not on the verge of collapse. Science tells us these things because science questions such things.

        Of course believing the entire ecosystem being on the verge of collapse due to oil and gas fracking in Cook Inlet is easy when you deny basic science.

  8. Note that none of this was due to oil and natural gas in Cook Inlet. None of it due to Pebble. None of it due to overescapement. Rather, it is entirely due to the decision by the State of Alaska, driven by foolish protectionist commfish to ban fish farming in Alaska. Instead, we turned to ocean ranching, flooding the biosphere with billions of pink fry and over 30 years have managed to seriously damage returns of king, silver and red salmon into PWS and Cook Inlet. Solution is still possible, moving the production of pink fry into onshore RAS facilities. Time to get to work. Cheers –

  9. As a sport fisherman, I know we have to do our part to ensure a future for the salmon fishery. But, am I the only one who thinks a freshwater solution doesn’t solve a saltwater problem?

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