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Killing kings

A Copper River king salmon just back from the sea/Craig Medred photo

The season for the most popular Alaska salmon in the state’s most populous region had only begun before it largely ended yesterday in another display of the sagging fortunes of Chinook salmon in the Pacific Ocean.

While populations of pink salmon, the smallest of the species, continue to boom – commercial fishermen caught 161 million of those fish in Alaska last year and streams in many areas are plugged with them on an annual basis – populations of the biggest salmon – those Alaskans like to call “king” – continue to fade.

The count of Chinook at the weir on the Deshak River, the most popular king salmon stream in the Susitna River valley, stood at 2,780 yesterday, the lowest on record since 2013 when the run arrived very late apparently due to unusually high water in the early season.

The Southcentral region of the state set a record for snowfall in the winter of 2012-2013 which produced high spring runoff. There is no expectation of a replay of the 2013 scenario this year.

Instead, a river that posted weir counts of 30,000 to more than 50,000 kings per year at the start of the new millennium, is unlikely to reach the 9,000 to 19,000 returns of recent years.

Gulf of Alaska wide, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has documented a steady downward trend that began 15 years ago. Fisheries scientists have been trying to figure out why for more than a decade, but have largely gotten nowhere.

“Research…suggests that most of the Chinook salmon mortality is occurring in the first few months of life at sea and freshwater survival has been average or even above average,” the state agency says. “Additional research is needed to gain a better understanding of the primary factors that are affecting Chinook productivity and abundance, especially in the marine environment.”

There is general agreement among all the scientists that the survival problem is happening somehow and somewhere at sea, with state biologists noting that “the long-term marine survival for four Southeast stocks (had historically) been about four percent, meaning for every 100 smolt that emigrate to sea, four fish will return as adults over the next one to five years.

“(But) research has shown that during the recent period of poor production, marine survival has dipped below one percent. This decrease in marine survival, even in the face of some very good freshwater production in several systems, has been driving the downturn in overall adult production. The exact mechanisms behind the increased mortality rates are unknown.”

Fisheries researcher David Welch and associates at Kintama Research Services in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, in the late 2010s uncovered evidence that this problem with ocean survival applies coastwide.

When they finally got a study reporting a 65 percent, coastwide decline in productivity from the northern end of the Alaska Panhandle to southern Oregon peer-reviewed and published in Fish and Fisheries in 2020, it mainly served to kick off a major brouhaha over dams on rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Lost in the weeds

Because the study was funded by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which runs the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, it was attacked as merely another attempt by those interested in hydropower to keep the dams up and running.

Mitch Cutter of the Idaho Conservation League declared the study had been “debunked” by federal scientists invested in the theory that all of the problems of the Columbia and its tributaries are tied to freshwater survival.

“The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) funded Welch’s research, one of several papers that have deflected blame for fish declines away from the federal hydropower system, which BPA operates. BPA support of this type of research stands in stark contrast to peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous studies that most fish biologists endorse,” Cutter charged. “Reputable studies have concluded that the biggest factor in the continued decline of Snake River salmon and steelhead is the hydroelectric system of dams.”

But he was getting his information from federal scientists married to the longstanding dogma that wild salmon production is all about in-stream survival. A growing body of evidence has, however, shown that view is simply outdated.

As Alaska – home to more undisturbed, freshwater salmon habitat than the rest of the nation combined – has been witnessing, what happens in the ocean matters.

The Kintama study wasn’t an attempt to distract attention from the dams, but an acceptance of reality. That dams are a detriment to the natural reproduction of salmon is a given.

They alter both the upstream migrations of adults and the downstream migrations of juveniles, and create reservoirs in which predators that feast on young salmon, such as northern pike and the northern pikeminnow, can thrive.

The latter, ironically, has created an economic opportunity for fishermen in parts of Washington state given the bounties now paid for killing northern pike minnows. From 2011 to 2020, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports, “the top 20 anglers caught an average of 3,353 fish per angler and averaged reward payments of $27,836 each for the five-month season. The highest-paid angler in 2020 caught 5,579 fish and earned $48,501, while the all-time record harvest is 14,109 northern pikeminnow worth $119,341!”

Federal fishery managers have calculated the program has reduced pike minnow predation on young salmon by 40 percent. 

Mitigation

Not all of the freshwater survival problems humans have caused salmon can be solved by humans, but researchers have found ways to minimize them by cleaning up logging operations, filtering road drainage into rivers and streams, funding predator control, trucking salmon around dams and more.

Ocean survival presents a more complicated problem.

At this time, the ocean remains a vast unknown for teaming with hundreds of species of fish that all eat each other at different times and in different life stages. Bill Templin, the director of research for commercial fisheries with Alaska’s Fish and Game, four years ago dismissed ocean survival issues as simply too complicated to study. 

But aging Canadian researcher Dick Beamish and a small band of supporters from Canada and the Pacific Northwest managed to kick start a major ocean research project in 2019 that has now been joined by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and some scientists from Alaska Fish and Game.

Some of what they have found is obvious. Marine habitat, though it might all look the same on the surface, is much like terrestrial habitat beneath the surface in that it is a patchwork of productive and unproductive habitats.

In short, there are good pastures for growing salmon, bad pastures for growing salmon, and a lot of in-between pastures.

The biggest difference between the pastures here and on land are indications that the good pastures in the ocean can move around a lot depending on the shifting tides of nutrients in the water, sunlight and water temperatures.

The food web might be more complicated at sea than on land – what with all sorts of fish feeding on each other at times – but it is basically the same: Where plants (phytoplankton) thrive, the ocean supports more tiny animals (zooplankton), and together they form the base of a trophic pyramid that supports ever smaller numbers of ever-larger species of life, including marine mammals and humans at the very top.

The big issue at sea is how the blocks that build the pyramid interact, and there has come an increasing focus on the one occupied by those oh-so abundant pink salmon thanks, in part, to the free-range farming of the sea by commercial fishermen controlled hatcheries in Alaska, in part by the state’s management of pink slamon for maximum abundance across their range, and in part because of the warming of the ocean, which appears to benefit Gulf of Alaska pinks more than bigger sockeyes (reds), cohos (silvers) and those much-loved Chinooks (kings).

Four years ago, a team of scientists from Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest hypothesized that a historic high abundance of pink and chum salmon in the Gulf, and sockeye in Bristol Bay where global warming has sparking a sockeye boom, could force a major ecological shift away from the production of Chinook and coho.

“High abundance of these species, especially pink salmon, cause a trophic cascade that reduces prey availability for higher trophic species such as Chinook and coho salmon in offshore areas,” they wrote. 

A team of international scientists studying shearwaters, a seabird that migrates between Australia and the Bering Seas, have likewise pointed to pink salmon as a player in the crash of shearwater populations.

As they reported in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2018, major shearawter die-offs happened from 2007 to 2013 as pink salmon populations were ever growing and were “another example in a growing list of ecosystem disservices of an abundant species of North Pacific salmon and the need to include ecosystem processes at such geographic scales in conservation and management considerations for this northern open ocean.

“Pink salmon in the North Pacific Ocean have flourished since the 1970s with growth in wild populations augmented by rising hatchery production,” they wrote. “As their abundance has grown, so too has evidence that they are having important effects on other species and on ocean ecosystems.”

This theory, however, remains far from scientifically proven, though there is increasingly interesting data being gathered including that which would appear to indicate that pink salmon have now become so abundant in even-numbered years that they supress the production of pinks in odd-numbered years.

Exactly how this yo-yoing abundance might affect other species of salmon is largely unclear, but various studies have now linked the big boom in pink numbers to the shrinking body size of longer-lived species of salmon and to a decline in sockeye salmon numbers in Gulf of Alaska watersheds.

There is enough evidence of disruption that scientists working with the North Pacific Anadaromous Fish Commission, a joint U.S.-Canada-Russia monitor of Pacific salmon populations, this winter posed this question:

“Are There Too Many Salmon in the North Pacific Ocean?”

They answered it with an observation of the declines in longer-lived species of salmon as pinks, the shortest-lived of the species, boomed, observed that “overall, pink salmon represented approximately 74 percent of total salmon abundance in 2018/2019. Most pink salmon are of natural origin, 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.

“Total chum and sockeye salmon represented only 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of total salmon abundance in 2018/2019. These values exclude Chinook and coho salmon, whose combined reported commercial catch  was 1.5 percent of total salmon catch from the North Pacific during 2018/2019 and approximately 5 percent of total salmon catch, on average, during 1925 to 2020.”

In short, Chinook production appears more than a third less now than what it was historically. The number is interestingly close to that 65 percent reduction in West Coast production of kings reported by the Kintama scientists. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 replies »

  1. The Independent Scientific Advisory Board that debunked the Ocean-Only aspect of Welsh study, has also (this year) pointed out that their is yet no evidence of any benefit for the sport-reward fishery of predacious Northern Pikeminnow.

    “There has been over 28 years of suppression with the sport reward program and about an average of 32 percent reduction in the potential predation, but we have never measured its effectiveness on salmonids,” the ISAB’s Dr. Stan Gregory told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in May, 2019. “We’ve only measured the reduction in pikeminnow.”

    There is little disagreement, however, that half of Idaho’s juvenile salmonid migrants perish within the hydrosystem migration corridor. (http://bluefish.org/Juvenile_Survival_Trap_to_Bonneville_1997-2018.pdf)

    Often left out of the discussion, unfortunately, is Delayed Mortality. Schaller et. al, (bluefish.org/Schaller.pdf) survey of literature finds that 75% of those that survive eventually die in the ocean from the latent effects of that downstream hydro system journey.

    Doing the math one sees that only 1 of 8 juvenile migrants from Idaho survives the hydro system unscathed. (1-50%) x (1 – 75%) = 1/8

    • Thanks Scott, but I presume you understand one out of eight – or 12.5 percent – ain’t bad given the normally high mortality of young salmon.

      UW pegged wild Lewis River Chinook smolt survival at 10.5 percent. http://courses.washington.edu/fish450/Lecture%20PDFs/Survival_at_Sea.pdf

      Salmon perish at astounding rates in all migration corridors, whether dammed or undammed. There is no doubt undammed is way better than dammed, but there could well be much bigger issues affecting Chinook in the North Pacific. The declines in Alaska are not defined by dams becuase there are no dams: https://www.juneauempire.com/opinion/opinion-a-pessimists-view-of-taku-river-king-salmon/?fbclid=IwAR3mGpKl-MSgoAmjA3OGynqxciNtToPkzVMe5njM_4zuIN8WVA1COuqD7Io

      As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Idaho, it’s easy to understand the preoccupation with dams. It’s tough dealing with a species of anything near the limit of its range. Abundance there is never going to reach the levels we as humans would like to see. But I frankly don’t see any way that anyone is going to make those dams go away in these days of climate change given their benefits in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which might mean its time to think about things that might be fixed other than dams.

      Along those lines, it’s fun to diss predator control programs because it take hard work to document whether or not they work, but where the studies have been done, they’ve pretty much all led to the same conclusions: reducing predator numbers reduces predation. Thus I’d take the 32 percent reduction in pike minnow predation as a good thing, not something to fret over as unproven as to its actual benefit.

      Personally, I’m glad Alaska doesn’t have the dam problems of the Columbia River watershed, but if you could now explain the crash of Chinook in the Yukon River, where the decline may be worse than in the Colubmia, that would be helpful.

      • First off, I’d like to say that I appreciate your kind tone to my post. Seeing other comments on this blog had me fearful of what might come. So thanks for that.

        The recently completed NEPA document (see CRSO.info) found Remove Snake River Embankments as the best option for Idaho’s salmon. This finding mirrors what the previous NEPA document on the issue determined twenty-three years ago, but that report added that Lower Snake River (LSR) dam breaching “was not necessary at this time.”

        Important to our discussion, the recent NEPA document was not able to show a benefit to climate change by maintaining these salmon killing dams and reservoirs. For starters, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates the four slow-moving, heat-trapping reservoirs impounded by the LSR dams releases 89,000 MMT of methane annually. That equates to something like 10 tons of methane per hour.

        These flatware reservoirs — created to provide slack water navigation of goods from the productive wheat growing region of the Palouse — are anything but clean for the environment.

        The recovery of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead that would likely follow dam breaching would restore Idaho’s forests that are now starving from the sudden decline of salmon carcasses and the marine-derived nutrients that salmon once brought in great abundance.

        Using Project Drawdown’s estimate of Carbon Capture that would follow from restoring the world’s degraded temperate forests (see drawdown.org/solutions/temperate-forest-restoration), I have estimated that ~150MMT of CO2 would arise from Idaho’s salmon recovery and the new growth of temperate forests that would follow. Essentially, Idaho’s temperate forest is an idled Carbon Capture Machine waiting to be restarted by the return of salmon.

        If you’d like to take the time, a review of these calculations would be appreciated (see bluefish.org/PNWA_Carbon.pdf). If you are unable to find much error in that paper, then maybe you will see why “anyone is going to make those dams go away in these days of climate change”. I am fully open for criticism of that paper, but as of yet, none has been received.

        Other than finding significant error in that paper, I am open to the possibility that you might show how”the LSR dam provide benefits in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.” The NEPA document was unable to do so, and left their conclusion on that topic as “uncertain”. (See final “Click for Response” at http://bluefish.org/CRSO/Greenhouse_Gases.htm)

        Once again, I appreciate the polite conversation that we are now undertaking. Best Regards.

  2. The BB red return is predicted to be massive – highest on record. Pinks are are thriving – higher than anytime in history. There have never been enough chinooks to move the meter for the major processors. Exactly what is the problem here?

    • Erak – pinks in used to be sold for pennies for the pound. Kings sold for many dollars per pound. No tourists come to alaska to catch pinks thousands of tourists come to alaska to catch kings . Subsistence fisherman try hard to avoid catching pinks yet seach far and wide for kings. . No one ever bought a pink stamp and many people buy king stamps . Charter boats spend a lot of money in communities to catch a few kings , versus processors spend as little money as possible in communities/ on site living quarters, on site meals , shipping in out of state out of country workers and pay absolutely sh— wages . Subsistence/ personal use fisheries are being curtailed state wide to prop up massive pink harvests and keep a king barely struggling along. ( Bristol bay is not accessible to the large majority of alaskans so that doesn’t help squat regarding feeding most of the state ) now do you see the problem? Should everyone converge on Bristol bay how long would that pie last ? Let’s think about it ? Wouldn’t it be better if all river salmon runs were strong instead of one where only a select few can functionally access ? Yep lets all start fishing Bristol bay and see how long that lasts ? Very long sited ? Right?

      • If you are comparing onshore processors to charter operations your opinion is old and misinformed. I am fairly certain the processors electrical usage in my town helps keep everyone’s rates down. As for housing it is the only way to go to operate a business requiring many workers at a lower wage scale. Many businesses are having difficulty operating 100 per cent as workers are unable to afford housing in the area.
        I was just getting a pizza at the local shop. Was waiting behind some cannery workers. I asked the owner about this. He said his business has dramatically increased since the cannery placed a new bunk house next to his business. Why do you hate capitalism.
        As for the kings. It is sad to see the decline. Not good for anyone.

    • Alaska selected the King salmon as its State Fish. Alaska’s constitution mandates that our fisheries resources be managed on the principal of sustained yield. Regrettably in some areas of the State the King Salmin runs have fallen so low that pro active management to get them back to levels that allow harvest have been attempted and in some cases are failing to achieve goals. Without changes the King Salmon may become an endangered species/

      I consider these to be significant problems. Read “King of Fish” to see what happened to the most prolific King Salmon fishery in the the country when action was not taken early enough to save the King Salmon in Oregon. Except for the rare wild fish and a few hatchery Kings, there are no more. Do you want that to happen in Alaska? Are you willing to sacrifice the King so even more Pinks and Sockeye can be harvested?

    • That is an excellent question, but it has never been publicly discussed nor have the economic benefits of potentially trading Chinook and GOA sockeye for pinks ever been measured. It might be a good deal; it might not. It’s certainly been good for salmon seiners and salmon processors in Prince William Sound.

      It would be interesting to know what they average Alaskan thinks. Does he/she think it’s good to trade a few Chinook for massive numbers of pinks, if that is what is happening? I frankly don’t know. It’s quite possible Alaskans don’t care what species of salmon return to our rivers and streams as long as there are a lot of them.

      My personal experiences on the Kenai River beaches during the dipnet fishery is that a lot of them can’t tell a pink from a sockeye anyway.

  3. decent return on the CR, good escapement and harvest.
    early BB harvest, already to be shaping up to largest return ever of sockeye. the fish are also bigger, reversing the trend of last couple seasons.
    BB chinook return looks good.

    • James- you’ve been doing this a long time. Are there more kings now or in the past ? Regarding statewide? How about reds? Are we being more curtailed now than ever? Do you want your grandchildren to have as much fun fishing as you did ? As much opportunity? Do you like the direction all these limitations are going while our population is growing? Do you feel its fair while a few well connected people get fat as hogs on a communal resource while others who traditionally substited on salmon as a staple cant fill their freezers smoke houses or even bellies while your Freinds wonder if they can buy an even bigger Diesel engine to move their 300,000$ Deluxe boat? You would let people go hungry and say well Bristol bay is doing great ! Who gives a rats about your freezer or river? Kings are scarce even on the copper now and you know it . All the yukoners / norther and western alaskans are starting to converge on the copper. How long will that last ? Slow but sure systems are over taxed . Big kings are gone . You of all people should fight like h— for future generations.

  4. “Instead, a river that posted weir counts of 30,000 to more than 50,000 kings per year at the start of the new millennium, is unlikely to reach the 9,000 to 19,000 returns of recent years.”

    If we are consistently 50% less than historic highs, this meets the qualification to list the Chinook as ENDANGERED…
    Trying to get government to move in this direction will be incredibly difficult since we all know how the commercial fisheries drives gov policy.
    Everyone should contact US fish and wildlife at 703-358-2171
    https://www.fws.gov/program/endangered-species/contact-us

    • I think you are right. This is getting ludicrous. .
      Its effectively theft from a large segment of the alaskan and Canadian population to benefit a few well conected people. It’s damaging the ability of alaskans to feed themselves as well as risking the species. It benefits every one except maybe the pinkos to strengthen the king runs . Commercial and sport fisherman will be happier if there is a strong king run long term . Draws tourists not to mention fills freezers and smoke houses . We are loosing our legacy to some greedy selfish short sighted people

    • Steve,
      You’ve been provided with the information for what it takes to list a species on the endangered species list. You know that by definition it means the species must be at risk of extinction. A 50% decline off of historic highs does not an endangered species make, by any means. Your willful ignorance of what an endangered species is aside, would you say that Bristol Bay sockeye were an endangered species if they returned to the numbers they had just a few years ago since that would represent a 50% decrease to the current historic highs?

      I’m amazed that someone would be as persistently ignorant as you continue to be.

      • Steve o – the facts are looking you in the face . Most of Alaska has more restrictions than nearly ever . Your head in sand while unjustly malighning others over their concern for our shared resource is just despicable. “Im amazed that someone could be as persistently ignorant as you continue to be” steve it damages everyone long term if our highly valued kings or reds falter . So instead of poo pooing stines opinion why don’t you present a better functional solution? What can be done to improve the situation?

      • Fact 1
        Per the Endangered Species Act “The term “endangered species” means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range other than a species of the Class Insecta determined by the Secretary to constitute a pest whose protection under the provisions of this chapter would present an overwhelming and overriding risk to man.”

        Fact 2
        King Salmon in Alaska are not in danger of going extinct.

        Fact 3
        Given fact 1 and fact 2 listed above, repeatedly and ignorantly claiming that King Salmon in Alaska should be listed as an endangered species is not a functional solution and is patently absurd.

  5. It needs figured out and resolved because it’s massively cutting into alaskans traditional food source and risking the future of kings overall survival.
    Now they are shutting red fisheries or shortening just to protect kings and our freezers are harder to fill every year . This is going to get to point where its a violent struggle. . Kings must be being targeted beyond the 20 mile marker as well as pinks are disrupting kings food sources or something. Truly it’s stupid to rob peter to pay paul . Releasing massive pings to damage the kings. Stupid.

  6. If the shearwaters are designated an endangered species, could that designation be used to shut down the pink hatcheries?

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