Along the Pacific coast of Canada, where salmon runs are struggling so badly that there are fears they are dying, the finger of blame is being pointed at ocean harvests to the north.
But the complaint of Canadian conservationists and fishermen is not with the bycatch of relatively small numbers of salmon in the nets of trawlers that strip mine the Gulf of Alaska for pollock and other white-fleshed fish, a problem that again has Alaskans in a tizzy.
Oh no. To the south, the Canadians famed for their friendliness are getting madder than hell about the intentional catch of their fish in commercial fisheries along Alaska’s coast.
“New study suggests Alaskan commercial fishery threatening BC salmon,” headlined the Nelson (British Columbia) Daily. “Alaskan fishers intercepting B.C. salmon at ‘jarring’ rate” was the headline in the Victoria-based Times Colonist.
This storm of bad publicity for the Alaska commercial fishing industry was kicked off a week ago by a collection of Canadian non-government organizations (NGOs) – the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation – which unveiled a report concluding that as Canadian and Pacific Northwest salmon runs shrink in size, Alaskans are harvesting an increasing proportion of the fish.
Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang has countered that Alaska commercial salmon fishing isn’t endangering any salmon anywhere and suggested that this is all just politicking timed to coincide with ongoing Pacific Salmon Treaty discussions between the U.S. and Canada.
Playing the press
“Many of B.C.’s largest salmon runs pass through Alaskan waters on their way home to spawn in Canadian rivers. While commercial fishing was nearly non-existent in B.C. last summer, Alaskan fleets just across the border logged over 3,000 boat-days and harvested almost 800,000 sockeye (most of which were of Canadian origin). In addition to sockeye, tens of thousands of Canadian Chinook and coho were also harvested, as well as large but unknown numbers of co-migrating Canadian pink, chum, and steelhead, many of which come from threatened and endangered populations.
“‘We knew the Alaskans were intercepting a lot of B.C. salmon,” said Greg Knox of SkeenaWild, “but the numbers in this report are staggering. I’m also appalled at their failure to report their bycatch of non-target species, which Canadian fishers are required to do.’
“BC salmon numbers have hit record lows in recent years, prompting former federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan to close 60 percent of BC’s commercial salmon fisheries in June, 2021. She also announced a major license buyback program as part of Canada’s $647 million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative to rebuild depleted stocks. Indigenous and recreational fisheries have also had unprecedented closures in BC. ”
Alaska fisheries – commercial and sport – have long harvested Canadian and PNW salmon both accidentally and intentionally.
A genetics study completed in 2017 by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game concluded that most of the king salmon catch in the commercial troll fishery in Southeast Alaska comes from “the interior Columbia River (Summer/Fall), Southeast Alaska/transboundary river(s), North/Central British Columbia, Oregon Coast, South Thompson, Washington Coast, and West Vancouver reporting groups. Collectively, these seven stocks aggregates accounted for 91 percent of the harvest.”
Essentially all of those fish originate from spawning grounds other than in Alaska, and they show up not only in catches in the Southeast troll fishery. Canadian and PNW Chinook are regularly caught in Alaska nets from Kodiak east and south to the tip of the Panhandle.
A separate genetics study conducted by Alaska Fish and Game showed that in 2014 about 30 percent of the commercial harvest of fabled and highly valuable “Copper River kings” was actually “attributable to nonlocal stocks, the majority originated from the British Columbia reporting group (12 percent), followed by the West Coast U.S. (10 percent)….”
The numbers only increased in 2015 and 2016 when state scientists concluded over a third of those fabled Copper River kings were really some-place-else kings, but the nonlocal fish in the catch plummetted to 7 percent in 201`7.
The decline coincided with a crash in the return of Chinook to the Columbia River. Its combined return of spring, summer and fall Chinook that year totaled only 661,000, down from about 1.7 million only two years before, according to a Washington (state) Department of Fish & Wildlife report.
The Alaska bycatch of these fish appears to be self-limiting in that it goes up and down in relation to abundance.
In 2015 – the year that 1.7 million Chinook returned to the Columbia – the Alaska study of Copper River bycatch noted that “the proportion of British Columbia and West Coast U.S. fish was unusually large in the early part of the fishing season with British Columbia fish (alone) reaching 32 percent during period 2, and West Coast U.S. fish (alone) reaching 30 percent during period 3.”
A long history
These fish were by definition bycatch in a long-established Alaska fishery targeted on Copper River kings. The odds for high bycatch rates in that fishery have only gone up in recent years as state fishery managers have pushed the gillnet fleet toward the outer edge of the Copper River flats to try to minimize the harvest of weak runs of Copper Chinook mixed in with stronger runs of Copper River sockeye.
But the reality is Alaska fisheries have been harvesting Canadian and Lower 48 salmon in significant numbers for decades.
The visibly big catch of Canadian fish comes in Southeast where not only does the troll fishery target southern bound Chinook, but the gillnet fishery intercepts large numbers of sockeye. The Watershed report estimated a harvest of nearly 400,000 of those fish this year.
“Although formal estimates of Southern Southeast Alaska (SSEAK) catch of BC sockeye are not yet available for 2021,” it said, “preliminary information suggests significant catch of both Nass (approximately 101,000) and Skeena ( approximately 280,000) sockeye in SSEAK fisheries., There was no Canadian commercial catch of sockeye in the Skeena and Nass in 2021. This represents an SSEAK exploitation rate for both stocks of approximately 20 percent.”
Along with helping drive the closure of the Canadian fishery off the Skeena even before the season started, the Alaska catch helped force a July 11 closure of the sport fishery for sockeye in that famous river.
The historic argument supporting Alaska harvests of these fish in all of the state’s fisheries is that the salmon graze in Alaska pastures and thus fishermen in the 49th state are entitled to a fair share of the catch.
What is fair, however, has become a different question than what it was in the last millennium as Alaska hatcheries have helped flood the North Pacific with pink salmon that some biologists contend are driving a North America-wide decline in the numbers of Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon.
A peer-reviewed study published in Global Change Biology late last year reported that hatchery releases of pinks are already pushing down the number of wild pinks and added that “large-scale hatchery production may have unintended adverse effects on other species of salmon originating from distant regions….(but) quantifying the tradeoffs between industry performance in the fishery supported by the large hatchery program and productivity and abundance of wild salmon populations within and outside (Prince William Sound) are left for future extensions of this work.”
Another peer-reviewed study documenting a massive, coastwide decline in Chinook productivity whether the fish originate from the still-wild-habitats in Alaska and BC or the heavily dammed rivers to farther south. It pointed toward problems in the ocean that some biologists believe are tied either to food competition between species or predation.
A peer-reviewed paper published in “Marine and Coastal Fisheries: Dynamics, Management, and Ecosystem Science” in 2018 and authored by scientists Greg Ruggerone and James Irvine concluded that there were then more salmon in the North Pacific than at any time in recorded history, but that most of them were pinks.
Some biologists believe the combination of a warming ocean and hatchery-boosting have helped pinks gain a competitive advantage over other species. Both the warm water and the hatcheries have been good for Alaska.
Winners and losers
Warming is credited with helping push catches of sockeye salmon in subarctic Bristol Bay in Western Alaska to record levels, and elsewhere pink catches have exploded.
As a result, as salmon have struggled to the south of Alaska, the northernmost U.S. state has witnessed a salmon bonanza with annual average harvests climbing steadily decade by decade.
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 state record keepers.
The changes in Alaska’s pink salmon harvest, according to Fish and Game data, are dramatic since a state hatchery program was begun in the mid-1970s. Through that decade, Alaska witnessed an annual average harvest of 26.2 million pinks, but it was going up near the end of the decade as the hatcheries – then largely state-owned – began to come online.
The last two harvests of the decade both topped 50 million, and then the pink fishery exploded.
The average harvested soared to 67.8 million in the 1980s, a more than two-fold increase over the 1970s, and kept climbing to 100 million in the 1990s, a near four-fold increase in the catch since the ’70s.
The rate of increase was so great that it inevitably had to slow, and it did just that after the new millennium. In the 2000s, annual pink harvests settled down to an average of 112.1 million per year – slightly above the 100 million per year, all-species harvest state fishery managers once thought a benchmark for success.
Pink catches since have remained near the same level but begun to oscillate wildly with odd-year catches once topping the 200 million mark and even-year catches once falling below the 50 million mark.
There is now a better than two-fold difference between odd-year catches averaging 159 million fish per year and even-year catches averaging 70 million per year.
One theory offered to explain these oscillations is that odd-year pinks take such a big bite out of the North Pacific’s prey base that there isn’t enough food to support large numbers of pinks in the ocean the next year.
There are scientists who believe this fluctuation in prey is also responsible for a long-term shrinkage of Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon returning to Gulf of Alaska streams from the Alaska Peninsula south to Canada.
“…Intriguingly, the shared acceleration of size declines post-2000 occurred during a period of unusually high (though variable) pink salmon abundance in Alaska, suggesting high pink salmon abundances could be accelerating or exacerbating size declines,” a group of them wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in Nature Communications in the summer of 2020. “Our results provide further evidence that wild and hatchery-enhanced pink salmon abundance in the North Pacific has reached such high levels that they appear to be exerting an influence on ecosystem structure and function.”
All of this remains no more than a theory at this point, however, and the smoking gun in this debate – the concrete evidence to firmly establish if and how the huge numbers of pinks affect the abundance of other salmon – has yet to be found.
This task is difficult given that ocean ecosystems are incredibly complex. There are no simple predator and prey relations such as those on land where, for instance, wolves are always predators and moose are always prey.
In the ocean, most fish are sometimes predator and sometimes prey with the only hard and fast rule being that a bigger fish of almost any species will eat a smaller fish of almost any species – sometimes even of its own.
Still it appears possible, if not probable, according to a variety of scientists now studying the issue, that the problem Canadians salmon face is a lot bigger than the relatively small numbers of Canadian-born fish caught in Alaska waters.
It could be that Alaska pinks, the smallest and least valuable of Pacific salmon, have taken over and are dominating the ocean pasture to the detriment of Chinook, sockeye and coho.
If that is the case, Canada could be looking at big, systemic declines in the productivity of its best-known salmon streams and its most valuable salmon, and that can’t be fixed by simply reducing the number of Canadian salmon intercepted in Alaska by a few hundred thousand or even a million fish.