Indignant that so many streams and rivers in Alaska are annually plugged with salmon while those to the south of the 49th state struggle, Canadian activists led by commercial fishermen and Native leaders have pledged to double “down on (a) campaign to put pressure on Alaska to move their dirty fisheries away from where British Columbia fish migrate on their way home to spawn.”
They this week launched a website – Alaska’s Dirty Secret – and began a political fundraiser amid claims that “every year, millions of British Columbia’s wild salmon are killed in commercial fisheries in Alaska.
“Fisheries in Alaska are scooping up Canadian salmon before they reach their home rivers to spawn. Meanwhile, B.C.’s salmon and steelhead have hit record lows. Bears and other wildlife are going hungry and B.C. fisheries are closed. First Nations are not meeting their food needs; commercial fishers are out of work; and hard-working B.C. families can no longer catch a salmon to bring home for dinner.”
The actual number of B.C. salmon intercepted in Alaska fisheries is unknown. The claim of “millions” originated with a group of Canadian non-government organizations (NGOs) – the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation – which in January unveiled a report concluding that as Canadian and Pacific Northwest salmon runs shrink in size, Alaskans are harvesting an increasing proportion of the fish.
Twisting the numbers
The latest attack on Alaska fisheries focuses on the fact that “in 2021, Southeast Alaska fisheries harvested 58 million salmon,” but fails to note that 55.2 million of those were pink and chum salmon, nearly all of which were of Alaska origin either wild or farmed.
Of the 7 million chum caught in the waters of the state’s Panhandle last year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports 6.8 million were fish returning to hatcheries funded and controlled by the region’s commercial fishermen.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the pink salmon harvested in Southeast Alaska (SEAK) these days are caught in what are called so-called “terminal fisheries” in bays or inlets that harbor the streams where the parents of the returning salmon spawned.
“Since statehood, 76 percent of the salmon harvested in SEAK commercial fisheries have been caught with purse seine gear,” according to Fish and Game.
Other species are harvested as by-catch in those seine fisheries, but “over the recent 10-year period, the species composition of the purse seine harvest has included 88 percent pink, 9 percent chum, 2 percent sockeye, 1 percent coho, and less than 1 percent Chinook salmon,” according to the 2020 state report.
The Canadian interest is not in pink or chum salmon, but in sockeye, coho (silver) and Chinook (king) salmon. Both sockeye and Chinook have been in a general state of decline in abundance from Kodiak south along the rim of the Gulf of Alaska for decades with the big kings in particular fading.
A ground-breaking study by Canadian researcher David Welch and colleagues at Kintama Research Services in Nanaimo, B.C. in 2020 reported a 65 percent, coastwide decline in the productivity of king salmon stocks from the Alaska Panhandle south to Oregon.
The peer-reviewed study published in Fish and Fisheries pointed toward ocean survival as the big problem now facing the biggest of the Pacific salmon. The study has proven controversial, however, because some interest groups view it as an impediment to efforts to remove from the Columbia River drainage the many hydroelectric dams long cited as the greatest threat to that river’s fabled runs of Chinook.
Gulf sockeye declines, meanwhile, have been increasingly linked to the exploding population of pink salmon in the North Pacific, an explosion driven in part by Alaska’s highly successful and profitable business of free-range farming pink salmon.
But there is no doubt Alaska commercial fishermen do harvest some Canadian as well as Pacific Northwest salmon and have long done so. The best argument in defense of those harvests is that the little salmon emerging from southern streams and rivers in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia turn north, and eventually grow big and fat while grazing on the pastures off the Alaska coast.
This would seem to entitle Alaskans to some fair share of the production, but there is no nice, clean, objective method for determining what is fair.
As it stands now, commercial salmon trollers in the Panhandle, who catch kings with hooks and line, are limited to an annual harvest of about 193,000 Chinook as part of an Alaska allocation of 261,300 per the Pacific Salmon Treaty Agreement between the U.S. and Canada.
The remainder of the allocation covers by-catch in the region’s purse seine and gillnet fisheries. The state notes the troll fishery is the only fishery in the state managed to an annual harvest limit, and it has long been under attack from interests coastwide because of the nature of its harvest.
Genetics studies have concluded only about 16 percent of the fish caught in the fishery are of Alaska origin. That’s considerably less than the 29 percent of British Columbia origin, which is, in turn, less than the 46 percent of that contributed by Washington and Oregon stocks.
Most of the latter fish come from the Columbia which on its own provides about 30 percent of the catch, slightly more than all Canadian streams combined.
When it comes to treaty negotiations, this diversity of stocks complicates negotiations for the U.S. in that further reductions in the U.S. catch in Alsaka could merely translate into Canadian fisheries picking off more Chinook bound for Washington and Oregon.
And even if the Alaska harvest were cut by 29 percent to theoretically provide Canada its entire share of the Canadian salmon caught in the Alaska troll fishery, the increase in Chinook returning to Canada would amount to only about 76,000 fish.
The real problem is that there just aren’t the number of fish there once were, and as the Kintama report noted, fixing that problem appears bigger than just removing dams from Pacific Northwest drainages or cleaning up logging and mining operations in British Columbia, given that Chinook appear to be struggling as much in the wild, undeveloped streams and rivers of Alaska as in areas now dominated by the activities of man.
Part of the issue is clearly climatic. Fisheries scientists decades ago linked warmer waters in the North Pacific to a northward shift in salmon productivity.
“… Pacific salmon catches in Alaska have varied inversely with catches from the United States West Coast during the past 70 years,” they reported in 1999. “If variations in catch reflect variations in salmon production, then results of our analysis suggest that the spatial and temporal characteristics of this ‘inverse’ catch/production pattern are related to climate forcing associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a recurring pattern of pan-Pacific atmosphere-ocean variability.”
Since then, it has been universally accepted that the north-south shifts in catch are linked to production and that Alaska has been the big beneficiary of ocean warming.
“From 1977 to the early 1990’s, ocean conditions have generally favored Alaska stocks and disfavored West Coast stocks,” the 1999 study said. “Unfavorable ocean conditions are likely confounding recent management efforts focused on increasing West Coast Pacific salmon production. Recovery of at-risk (threatened and endangered) stocks may await the next reversal of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).”
Since the start of the new Millenium, there have several times been hints of the PDO shifting back to the colder phase of some earlier years, but it has stayed generally favorable toward Alaska. The results are reflected in state fishery harvests which have been only further bolstered by a warming Bering Sea causing an explosion in sockeye salmon production in Bristol Bay.
Just looking at the numbers, it’s not hard to understand why the Canadians might be upset.
While the Canadian harvest from 2017 through 2020, averaged just over 10 million fish per year, according to a report prepared for the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, the Alaska catch, according to state Fish and Game records, oscillated between even year catches of more 200 million fish and odd-year catches in the range of 115 million for a four-year average near 165 million.
The worst Alaska catch in that four-year period – the harvest of 114 million salmon in 2018 – was more than seven times larger than Canada’s biggest catch of 16 million in 2019.
And the differences between Alaska catches and Canadian catches has only been getting greater year by year with the 49th state witnessing a decades-long boom in abundance even if some of the more popular and valuable salmon species – Chinook, sockeye and coho – have struggled in some of the state’s Gulf of Alaska watersheds.
Statistically, any declines in abundance of those species get lost in the big picture, which is painted by the massive numbers of sockeye returning to Bristol Bay (another record return is expected there this year) and the swarms of pinks – humpies as Alaskans call them – returning to streams, rivers and hatcheries from Kodiak Island to Prince William Sound to Southeast Alaska.
Alaska today harvests salmon at a decadal-average rate more than three times higher than in the 1970s when harvest averaged just 49 million per year. The low number has been largely blamed on cold water in the northern Gulf and low spawning goals.
As the water warmed in the 1980s, the annual average climbed to 122.4 million, a whopping increase many thought was near maximum. They were wrong.
With state fisheries managers increasingly focused on maximizing production and with hatcheries kicking in, the numbers just kept going up:
- 157.5 million salmon per year on average in 1990s.
- 167.4 million salmon per year on average in the 2000s.
- And 180 million salmon per year in the 2010s.
Clearly this can’t go on forever. All natural ecosystems have limited carrying capacities, and it is possible the Canadians are already paying the price for Alaska’s salmon management success just not in the way they seem to think.
Some scientists have suggested it is possible their young fish, which have to travel farther to reach the rich feeding grounds off Alaska, are simply losing out due to competition from the unprecedented number of Alaska-origin salmon arriving first on the ocean pastures of the north.