The Seattle-based salmon processors that have for decades pulled the strings on the fishing business in Alaska have turned their propaganda machine on high to now promote the idea that hatcheries are a godsend for Alaska.
If you haven’t seen the stories, you just haven’t been paying attention to fish news.
- “Ranked by region: Hatcheries produced a third of Alaska’s salmon catch in 2021,” National Fisherman magazine.
- “Fish Factor: Robust return of salmon to hatcheries in 2021 paid out $142 million,” The Cordova Times
- ,Fish Factor: Alaska hatcheries contribute 1/3 to total salmon catch,” Undercurrent News.
Apparently Alaskans are supposed to be enthused about a four-decade-long record of producing ever more ocean-farmed salmon worth ever less value.
While the net-pen farmers of Norway led a takeover of the global salmon market by producing a high-quality product the value of which is measured in dollars per pound, Alaska’s free-range farmer focused on increasing the production of a lower-quality product worth cents per pound.
The Norwegian farmers are today selling their Atlantic salmon fresh daily at more than $4 per pound. Alaska’s approximately 1,100 state-permitted salmon seiners were netting pinks this summer at 25 to 35 cents per pound and are now sitting ashore somewhere because there Alaska salmon production is highly seasonal.
Meanwhile, scientists have been warning for years that the production of all these little “humpies” farmed in Alaska, along with the state’s large production of wild humpies, could well be depressing the production of sockeye, coho and Chinook worth six to almost 60 times as much per pound.
And who knows how many of these pinks are now mainly harvested to get their eggs, the most valuable part, with the carcasses then ground up into fish meal to help create “pure, real salmon” dog food or possibly sold oversees fed to shrimp that Americans can then buy back at inflated prices.
Yes, given the low value of pinks and the volumes of fish waste produced in trying to make filets of some of them, salmon have been studied for use as shrimp feed. “Results of this study demonstrated that salmon meals are a good protein source which can replace anchovy meal,” an Auburn University researcher concluded in 2019.
Salmon processors are to be commended for finding every way to squeeze a penny out of low-value pinks, but is this good for Alaska?
Laine Welch seems to think so. The founder and onetime owner of Alaska Fish Radio/Fish Factor, a now-defunct website funded by various commercial fishing businesses including Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Alaska Boats & Permits Inc., the processor dominated Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) and others, she appears to be the one behind all the stories trumpeting the success of Alaska’s open-ocean farming of salmon.
Whether the processing interests are still financing Welch – who the Anchorage Daily News for years chose to bill as an “independent journalist” while publishing her work without any editorial oversight – is unclear.
But there is no doubt that Welch, who shut down Fish Radio/Fish Factor in January, is still busy working as a spinmeister for the powers that be in the commercial fishing industry despite suggesting to Alaska Public Media that she was semi-retiring except to “continue to write a weekly column for the Anchorage Daily News.”
It was there as elsewhere that she reported that 2021 marked “the eighth largest hatchery homecoming since 1977 and, at a payout of $142 million, the salmon produced 25 percent of the overall value at the Alaska docks.”
The math is wrong. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game in November reported the total value of that season’s salmon catch at $643.9 million. One-hundred-forty-two million is 22 percent of that number, not 28 percent, and given that salmon values tend to creep up a bit because of late reporting of catches, the actual percentage might actually now be less than 22 percent.
This could be a simple math error. Those happen to most of us at times. And the bad math is far from the biggest problem in a story suggesting all is rosy with Alaska’s open-ocean farming of predominately two species of salmon that produced a third of the harvest last year but less than a quarter of the fishery value.
These fish are part of the explosion of pinks that have made the smallest and least valuable salmon the most dominant salmon species in the North Pacific Ocean. They now outnumber all other species of salmon combined and have been directly tied to declines in productivity of wild pink salmon and strongly linked to possible, North American-wide declines of much more valuable sockeye, Chinook and coho salmon.
Devils in the details
How much more valuable?
The average pink brought 32 cents and weighed three pounds. Those numbers translate into a value of $1.11 for the average humpy, as Alaskans usually call the salmon that takes on a notably misshapen form upon arrival on the spawning grounds.
In other words, a whole humpy – the entire fish – is worth about 19 percent of a pound of Chinook, or king salmon as it is more often called in the 49th state; about 77 percent of a pound of coho, often called silvers; and 83 percent of a sockeye, also known as a “red salmon.”
Interestingly enough, the pinks in Prince William Sound – which the state has allowed to be turned into what is essentially an industrial pink salmon factory – had a value slightly higher than the statewide average, possibly because the Sound is geared toward processing huge volumes of pinks caught near processing facilities.
A whole Sound humpy, according to the Fish and Game numbers, was worth $1.28 but this amounted to but 50 percent the value of a pound of Sound sockeye at an ex-vessel average of $2.57 and a mere 11 percent of a pound of Sound king at $12.07 per pound.
The prices of the latter two fish are driven up by the catch of coveted “Copper River” kings and sockeye netted each year as they head for the big glacier river just south of the entrance to the Sound.
And in this, there is, unfortunately, an economic catch-22.
What is good for the 267 fishermen who hold Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission seine permits allowing them to scoop up pinks by the tens of thousands in the Sound is not good is good for the 537 fishermen who hold permits to catch salmon by the hundreds per set with drift gillnets.
Scientists who in 2014 went looking for lasting damage to Sound fisheries from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) reported they could find no significant environmental change due to that spill of crude, but they stumbled on a big environmental impact linked to hatcheries.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS (Prince William Sound) hatchery pink salmon returns,” their study reported. “While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.”
The state enhancement report estimated the total return of hatchery salmon to the Sound at 44.8 million salmon last year. The sockeye harvest was a reported 1.2 million fish of which about 494,000 were reported to have returned to a Sound hatchery that produces sockeye along with the Sound’s huge volume of pinks.
Legally, those sockeye cannot be sold as high-price “Copper River sockeye salmon,” but it has been reported that in some years significantly more “Copper River” sockeye are sold than are reported caught off the mouth of the Copper.
Losers versus winners
With those 44.9 million pinks returning to Sound, Fish and Game reported that “the actual Copper River sockeye salmon run was well below average, with very little fishing opportunity during the first month of the fishery and the ninth smallest commercial harvest in the past 50 years.”
Such a harvest is perfectly in line with the EVOS study warning of sockeye productivity being “particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns” with “particularly high” defined as a return of more than 30 million.
How bad was the impact this year?
“The (Copper River) sockeye salmon commercial harvest of 397,700 fish was 68 percent less than the 10-year average harvest of 1.25 million fish,” Fish and Game’s 2021 Prince William Sound Salmon Season Summary read. “The sockeye salmon season was open for 540 hours, compared to 648 hours fished in 2019 (the most recent near-average sockeye
salmon run). Sockeye salmon were also small: the average weight of 5.3 pounds in 2021 was 0.6 pounds smaller than the 30-year average (1991‒2020) of 5.9 pounds.”
Returns of sockeye to Cook Inlet, which lies just north of the Sound, were also low, but the returns there have not been linked to large returns of humpies to the Sound because there has been no effort to look for a connection. Bill Templin, the state head of commercial fisheries research, is on record as having told the Alaska Board of Fisheries that possible connections between high pink production and low sockeye production are too difficult for his biologists to try to untangle.
And he has dismissed the appearances of connections between pinks and sockeyes with the old scientific cliche that “correlation is not causation,” an accurate enough observation that somehow became irrelevant when the decision was made to order Americans to mask their faces during the height of COVID-19 pandemic fears.
Welcome to the world of “listen to the scientists.” Sadly, a lot of scientists have become like the rest of Americans who want believe what they want to believe instead of sticking to what science can document.
The connection between big Sound pink returns and small Cooper River sockeye returns does, indeed, remain a correlation because scientists cannot put their finger on a causative factor linking the two, but with each passing year that the connection repeats itself, it becomes harder to ignore.
Sometimes replicability becomes its own form of proof. Acupuncture was in use as a proven, effective treatment for some kinds of pain for hundreds of years before anyone had a clue as to why sticking needles in people helped ease their discomfort. Same for the corticosteroid Prednisone, a miracle drug for reducing inflammation causing all sorts of medical problems.
Forget about the environmental issues involved here. The massive numbers of pinks now produced in Alaska might have reached the point where they costing the state more than benefitting it, but there are powerful economic interests that would rather see the return of more pinks than more sockeyes, kings or chinooks.
It’s not their fault.
Businesses exist to make money. Whatever good they might – and they do good by providing a focus in the lives of many – is ancillary.
So ignore the exaggerated claims fish processors make as to how many jobs they provide in Alaska (78.1 percent of those jobs go to low-wage migrant works anyway, according to the state Department of Labor), and the benefits (some them very real) that accrue for a few rural communities that still host processing plants, and focus on how these companies are structured.
All of the majors are now connected to net-pen fish farming in one way or another. Keen-eyed observers might have noticed how ASMI stopped dissing farmed salmon as unhealthy years ago, and now sings a somewhat different tune, going to so far as to claim that it recognized early on that farmed salmon are a “consistent and available as a refreshed (sic) product year-round. It could have been perceived as the enemy of a burgeoning fresh-frozen wild salmon industry.
“Rather than put the two products in the same playing field by arguing the advantages offered by wild salmon, ASMI has always stood behind the mantra that the farmed product introduces new consumers all over the world to salmon. They are, in fact, opening the door for Alaska Seafood. Once familiar with the flavor profile, Alaska can take consumers to the next level of luxury with a taste of wild.”
Contrast this with the observations of Alaska economist Gunnar Knapp in a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund in 2007:
‘While salmon farmers have expressed, in various informal ways, an interest in cooperation, most wild salmon fishermen have not been receptive to this idea.
Although larger wild salmon marketing organizations, in particular ASMI, have generally refrained from attacking farmed salmon, neither have they defended farmed salmon or explored opportunities for cooperation. As discussed earlier, some wild salmon
producers have welcomed and sought to benefit from criticism of farmed salmon.”
That was then. This is now.
ASMI once had a 25-member board on which served some quarrelsome fishermen. It now has a seven-member board with five members who are processors. And the two biggest processors represented on the board – Ocean Beauty and Trident Seafoods – are well invested in farmed salmon.
This salmon is usually sold in four- to 10-ounce filets, the best of which come from salmon raised to a size of eight- to 10-pounds. This is a product intended to be put on the grill or barbeque.
Given the 3.2-pound average size of pinks in the Sound, only the biggest can be fileted to produce a marketable product.
So, as Trident admits on its website, its plants at “Cordova North focuses heavily on the production of traditional can-packed and skinless-boneless canned salmon. In addition to this unique form of canned product, Cordova North also produces large volumes of high-quality wild salmon oil for human health supplements. Together with hydrolysates for animal feed and organic fertilizers, Cordova’s product line highlights Trident’s continuing investments in new-product development and full utilization.”
“Hydrolysates are definitely a part of the solution for improved efficiency and sustainability of the shrimp aquaculture industry,” a study conducted for Ecuadorian shrimp farmers concluded.
The other big plant in the Sound is owned by Silver Bay Seafoods, started in Sitka but now based in Seattle, which is heavily into the production of pink salmon roe, the most valuable part of the fish.
“The Valdez processing facility will operate during summer fishing season, primarily processing pink salmon which will then be sent (to) end-use companies for processing,” Colma Coil, the company supplying the plant’s refrigeration, reported when the plant is being built. “Beyond the meat itself, this Silver Bay facility will process salmon roe for wild salmon caviar and recover fish oil from the remaining solids.”
Primary processing leading to end-use processing is a euphemism for gutting fish, cutting the heads off and shipping the carcasses to China, or elsewhere in Asia to be processed into filets, if big enough, or ground into fish meal for dog food or sale to shrimp farmers who produce the most desired seafood product bought in the U.S.
Given the waste in Alsaka fish processing plants, grinding Alaska salmon into fish meal is actually a good thing, not a bad thing, as the McDowell Group, a consultancy, observed in a 2017 Analyses of Specialty Alaska Seafood Products.
“In 2015, Alaska harvesters caught 2,740 thousand metric tons of (round-weight) seafood,” it was written there. “Not including meal/oil, Alaska processors sold 1,300 thousand MT, a yield of 47.5 percent.
“Alaska meal/oil operations utilized an estimated 395,000 to 483,000 round MT, or 14-18 percent of the total harvest volume (in round terms). A rough estimate using these figures suggests that 28-34 percent of Alaska’s 1.42 million MT of estimated seafood waste is directed to meal/oil plants, producing roughly 87,000 MT of meal and 28,000 MT of oil.”
Most of this was from bottom fish, but the report showed salmon meal production increasing from nothing in 2012 to 13,579 metric tons by 2015. All indications are that it has just kept climbing since then.
Alaska salmon processors have used pinks to corner the low end of the market for salmon – either with fish in cans, pouches or the form of “Great Value” Walmart frozen filets – while catering to the high-end market salmon markets with farmed salmon and the few Copper River and Cook Inlet sockeyes and kings they can get their hands on and a still steady supply of Bristol Bay sockeye thanks to global warming.
This is clearly a win-win for those Seattle-based businesses. What it is for Alaskans is something Alaskans need to consider, but haven’t.
Well, as Knapp, the economist, once observed,”There is a reason Alaska (looks a lot like) a colony, a lot of people like it that way.”