Unvestigative journalism

Up up,up – Alaska commercial salmon harvests from 1900 through last year/Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Leave it to a journalist funded by a “nonprofit investigative-news organization” based in Los Angeles to somehow either miss or overlook the fact Alaska is awash in salmon.

The harvest this year reached nearly 222 million fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  This in a state where in the good-old-days of the last millennium a harvest of 100 million was considered a good year.

Of the eight years the harvest has topped 200 million, six came in the 2000s and the others fell near the very end of the last millennium, coming in 1995 and 1999, according to state records.

These are boom times.

The state ended the 2010s with an average harvest of about 180 million salmon per year, up from the 167.4 million per year from the 2000s, which was up from the 157.5 million per year in the 1990s, which was up from the 122.4 million per year of the 1980s, according to the record keepers.

Compare these numbers to those from the cold water years in the Gulf of Alaska in the 1970s when the average annual catch was but 56.2 million per year.

So what does The Atlantic report:

“…Bristol Bay outdid itself, notching the largest sockeye run in the region’s recorded history with an astonishing 66 million returning fish. Even more astonishing, this season capped nearly a decade of extraordinarily high salmon returns in Bristol Bay, where sockeye harvests have reached more than 50 percent above the most recent 20-year average.

“But such riches are localized. Outside of Bristol Bay, salmon fisheries are failing, including those on British Columbia’s famed Fraser River, on Alaska’s Chignik and Copper Rivers, and in Cook Inlet.”


Investigative reporter or not, Miranda Weiss, the author of the story, should know better. She lives in Homer. She’s not old enough to remember the1970s, but surely she must have heard of them.

From 1970 to 1975, the Cook Inlet catch of sockeye – the money fish in the fishery at Anchorage’s doorstep – averaged under 685,000 per year. And despite a couple of good years near the end of the decade – or good years for that period – the annual harvest for the decade was just over 1.1 million, according to Fish and Game data. 

This was then normal.

From 1954 until 1975, the seasonal harvests never topped 1.9 million per year, and in 13 of those 22 years, the catch was under 1 million.

Because of restrictions imposed on the commercial fishery to protect an extremely weak return of Chinook (king) salmon to the Kenai River this year, the Inlet’s, 2021 commercial catch of just over 1`.4 million was considered a near disaster.

As it stands, it would rank as the third-largest catch from 1954 to 1975, and if commercial fishermen had this year been allowed to harvest the 1 million or so sockeye surplus to spawning needs that made it back into the Kenai, a 2.4 million fish harvest would have ranked as the biggest in the period from 1954 to 1977.

And the fisheries weren’t failing then, either. They were weak. It happens, and it has been happening for a long time.

“Severe reductions of salmon runs in large areas of Alaska are suggested by historical abundances of sockeye from Kodiak Island, and archaeological evidence from (Alaska) Native communities near Cape Nome in Norton Sound (so-called Norton Phase) that showed those communities ceased to use salmon as a food resource for nearly 300 years even though they had done so for the 1,500 years prior to that period,” scientists studying genetic divergence in the region’s chum salmon reported in a 2013, peer-reviewed paper published in Ecology and Evolution.

They built on the work of former University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Bruce Finney, now at the University of Idaho, who tracked nitrogen isotopes from the carcasses of lake-spawning sockeye that had died in Alaska over the decades to put together a picture of prehistoric returns.

Up and down

He found huge swings in sockeye numbers “over a range of time scales. There is evidence for regimes lasting on the order of several decades – similar to historical records -as well as regimes lasting for several centuries,” he wrote in 2003 paper for the Alaska Fisheries Research Bulletin titled “The Long Term Outlook for Salmon Returns to Alaska.”

The long-term outlook could generally be described as “anyone’s guess.”

“Interestingly, these long-term records do not suggest a regular cyclicity. A subtle difference in trends between Bristol Bay and
Kodiak Island systems for the interval between the late 1800s and the early 1900s coincides with a period of climatic change where
North Pacific temperature patterns are different than those observed in the 20th century. This indicates that some North Pacific climate states may result in responses by salmon
stocks that vary regionally within Alaska.

“While the timing of changes in these long-term records generally coincides with times of change in paleoclimatic records, the relationships are complex. Historically, Alaska salmon are generally more abundant during periods of warm climate. This pattern is sometimes, but not always, followed in the sedimentary records. This suggests that conditions experienced since written
records have been kept are not representative of the full range of states of the North Pacific.”

Finney freely conceded a warmer future would likely at some point be detrimental to salmon but he made no attempt to define how much temperatures would have to rise before salmon numbers would begin to decline.

“In the last 15 years,” he wrote, “we have seen numerous dates proposed as the beginning of a major shift in salmon production; so far, the bulk of these warnings of collapse in Alaska’s salmon runs have failed to materialize. Future shifts in salmon production are inevitable, but we must expect that these changes will be unexpected.”

That was 18 years ago. Since then, average annual Alaska salmon harvests have just kept going up decade by decade. This can’t go on forever. It has to end sometime.

But the situation isn’t where the Atlantic claims it is now.


“Scientists believe that climate change is boosting salmon numbers here in Bristol Bay, even as warming temperatures and other factors seem to be driving the fish to extinction elsewhere.”

First off, scientists don’t “believe” climate change is boosting salmon numbers in Bristol Bay; scientists have found evidence warming is boosting salmon numbers in Bristol Bay.

Warming waters in Bristol Bay lakes have made them more productive for the zooplankton on which young sockeye salmon feed.

Because their diet has improved, researchers from the University of Washington have found sockeye are growing faster, going to sea earlier and surviving in greater numbers, in parts thanks to an ocean pasture also benefitting from warming.

Secondly, salmon are generally not being driven to extinction. Of the tens of thousands of salmon runs using streams and rivers along the coast of the U.S. and Canada, only a handful of stocks are considered endangered, and all of them return to areas where human development and agriculture have played havoc with their spawning grounds or the route to their spawning grounds.

Most of these fish are Chinook (kings), the biggest of the Pacific salmon. Why they are struggling in an ocean where others species of salmon – sockeye in Bristol Bay, pink salmon in the northern Gulf of Alaska – are thriving is the subject of much debate.

Some scientists have theorized the kings – along with sockeye and coho salmon – are having an increasingly difficult time competing with swarms of pink salmon gobbling up the available ocean prey.

Others have fingered wild salmon predators – either killer whales or salmon sharks – as a possible problem.

University of Alaska researchers in February reported their investigations had led them to the conclusion that “additional mortality during (and) after the first winter at sea better reflected observed changes in the age structure of a well-studied and representative population of Chinook salmon from the Yukon River drainage, compared with a model estimating environmentally-driven variation in age-specific survival alone.

“Although the specific agents of late-stage mortality are not known, our finding is consistent with work reporting predation by salmon sharks and marine mammals including killer whales. Taken as a whole, this work suggests that Pacific salmon mortality after the first winter at sea is likely to be higher than previously thought and highlights the need to investigate selective sources of mortality, such as predation.”

Predators – vilified by the old, agrarian world only to be lionized by a new, urban world order – are attracting more scrutiny in many areas of ecology these days.

The world is a complicated place where the more you know, the less you are certain of. But the journalistic narratives that appear to sell best are the all-knowing ones that paint it all simple.

It’s hard to make the doomsday scenario work if you make things too complex.

It’s better to just write that “even as more salmon are returning to Bristol Bay, some fishermen here worry that it might be time for a bust.”

The turning point

Of course, it might. Change is a constant. It’s unrealistic to think what is now will be forever. And Alaska has already defied the odds.

There were some very good scientists 20 years ago arguing the North Pacific had reached its salmon carrying capacity. But by 2018, Seattle-based researcher Greg Ruggerone and Canadian colleague James Irvine were reporting the North Pacific was home to more salmon than at any time in recorded history. 

The only problem was and is that the rising tide of salmon has not benefitted all species or all places. Regionally, Canada and the Pacific Northwest have been the biggest losers while Alaska is the biggest winner.

Sockeyes boomed in Bristol Bay, but slumped in most other areas. Chinook faded generally across the board, but there’d never been that many of them anyway. And pinks?

Pinks simply exploded. Nearly seven out of every 10 salmon commercially harvested in Alaska this years was what Alaskans commonly call a “humpy.”

Prince William Sound, where commercial fishermen operate industrial-scale pink salmon hatcheries, accounted for more than 66 million pinks.

Aided by hatcheries, the state of Alaska has over the last 25 years done a world-class job of managing pinks for maximum sustained yield, leaving one big and yet unanswered questions:

Have other species of salmon or other areas of the Pacific coast paid the price for this bounty?

It’s a fundamental of ecology that in systems with multiple predators and multiple prey, it is simply impossible to manage every species for maximum yield.

Almost 20 years ago, Finney observed that “it is important to distinguish between climate induced and human induced causes during low productivity phases, and not to use climate as a scapegoat because negative human impacts can be corrected.”

Then again, scapegoating is so much easier.











2 replies »

  1. Very interesting. Viable idea that kings are meeting heavy ocean predation. Sharks apparently have learned the habits of salmon and their life cycle. With artificially reliable production stability of pinks , it alledgedly causes sharks to stay longer in our waters and increase their own survival ratios. Do they in turn target high value kings ? Or is this higher ocean mortality due to human fishers ?

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