Up, down fisheries

Alaska Department of Fish and Game harvest data

Despite a monster catch of sockeye salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the 2022 harvest of wild-caught Pacific salmon appears to be once again yo-yoing down toward an even-year low.

Trade-X Foods – a global seafood supplier based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada – is reporting a Russian harvest only about 42 percent of last year’s catch, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has the Alaska catch headed toward 154 million salmon with the season set to a close in a few weeks.

Commercial fisheries across the state harvested 233.8 million salmon in last year. 

Alaska and Russia are the major producers of wild-caught salmon, though significant numbers of fish in both countries come from hatcheries. The Canadian and Lower-48 volume of wild-caught salmon is so small it barely registers as a blip in the global, wild-caught market.

The combined take of Russia and Alaska salmon this year looks to be on the order of 480 million metric tons, slightly better than half of the 2021` catch of 929 million metric tons. The low harvest is likely to drop wild-caught salmon to about a 14 percent share of the global salmon market for 2022.

Salmon farmers produced 2.88 million metric tons of salmon last year, according to the commodity tracker Mintec Global, and 2022 production is expected to be near that mark. Norway alone now produces more than 1.5 million tonnes per year or about 50 percent more than the catch of wild and hatchery fish in Russia and Alaska combined.

Salmon farming in ocean net pens and so-called “bluehouses” on land has been steadily increasing decade by decade and is expected to continue growing while the wildly oscillating production of wild and ocean-farmed fish (also known as ranched or wild-caught salmon) appears to indicate the ocean has reached its production ceiling.

Populous pinks

Pacific salmon catches have always yo-yoed to some degree year-to-year because of significant variations in the returns of odd-year and even-year pink salmon. The smallest, shortest-lived and usually most bountiful of the six species of Pacific salmon, odd-year pink salmon, and even-year pink salmon are genetically unique.

A 2018 study conducted by University of Washington researchers concluded “that even-year(pink) salmon all across the North Pacific are more closely related to each other than to odd-year pink salmon spawning in the same rivers. In every region examined, the odd-year pink salmon were more genetically variable than the even-year salmon.”

The scientists theorized that the last glacial maximum separated and isolated pink salmon in separate populations, “with one group surviving in Asia and north Alaska, and another group extending from southcentral Alaska to Washington.”

During this time, the fish evolved separately and somewhat differently.

The influence of pink salmon on the North Pacific ecosystem has been much discussed in recent years with a variety of researchers suggesting their abundance in odd-numbered years can trigger  “trophic cascades” that result in ecosystem-wide impacts that can affect other salmon, marine mammals, and bird populations. 

The thinking behind the theory is pretty simple: The odd-year pinks become so abundant they eat the lion’s share of food available in the North Pacific and everything else suffers. It has been theorized that the smaller runs of pinks on even-numbered years, such as this one, are because of the lower availability of food in the year after the odd-year fish graze the ocean pasture bare.

Seattle-based scientist Greg Ruggerone, writing on the website of the salmon-monitoring North Pacific Anadromous Fisheries Commission (NPAFC) early this year, floated the question of “Are There Too Many Salmon in the North Pacific Ocean?”

He noted significant changes in the mix of salmon species now at sea because of pink abundance, pointing specifically to “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 (was) approximately 5 percent of total salmon catch, on average during 1925 to 2020.”

Chinook, or kings as Alaskans more often call them, are the biggest and longest-lived of the Pacific salmon and have been in a West Coast-wide decline in size and number for decades. Canadian scientists in 2020 reported a 65 percent drop in the production of Chinook in the past 50 years.

Given that Chinooks originating from wild, undammed, unlogged, undeveloped watersheds in Alaska were declining as much as those born in the dammed, logged, developed and heavily farmed Columbia River drainage of the Pacific Northwest, they concluded the big change has to have come in the ocean where waters are now warmer than in the past and where salmon are more abundant than ever thanks in large part to the explosion of pinks.

Up and down

Or at least the big explosion in pink salmon in some years. There was a huge crash in salmon numbers in 2020 after a string of monster, pink-fueled catches that started in 2005 and continue in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2018.

“Unexpectedly, the high abundance of Pacific salmon came to an abrupt end in 2020,” Ruggerone reported to the NPAFC along with colleagues James Irvine and Brendan Connors with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “Preliminary commercial catch statistics for all salmon species indicate Pacific salmon harvests, which provide an index of abundance, declined more in 2020 than in any other period on record since 1930.”

The crash of 2002 was, however, followed by a big rebound in 2021.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is now leading a new effort to figure out what is going on with salmon in the North Pacific amidst a lot of questions about why salmon numbers have for so long remained at or near record numbers in Alaska, at least in odd-numbered years, while generally being depressed in watersheds south of Alaska.

Alaska harvests certainly look different now than historically with odd-numbered years producing never-imagined harvests of pink salmon in odd-numbered years followed by catches dropping dramatically in even-numbered years.

Driven by the big increase in sockeye numbers in the lake-rich, globally warmed Bristol Bay region, Alaska sockeye catches this year exceeded pink catches. That first happened in 2016 and was repeated in 2018; two even-numbered years.

Sockeye catches had never exceeded pink catches in the five decades prior to 2016. Clearly, some things have changed.





14 replies »

  1. Agimarc,
    From your previous post it is obvious that you are unfamiliar with the differences in the ecosystems of bristol bay and cook inlet. That is ok,ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of, as it is an opportunity to enlighten and educate yourself. Pick up a map and look at the drainages and lakes of the tikchik, wood,togiak, naknek kvichak,becharof,ugashik,egegik systems. Compare these systems to cook inlet, where the 2 major sockeye producers are the glaciated kenai and tustemena lakes. Please take into consideration the warming ocean conditions that are favoring survival rates of b.b. sockeye,and the fact that district manager Tim Sands is predicting a decline in future returns due to OVERESCAPEMENT.. Nice game,that. Cheers

  2. Agimarc.
    There is no way to compare bristol bay to cook inlet. Have you ever visited the bristol bay region? The many lakes in the tikchik wood river area and their spawning habit unfettered by glacial impact. Lakes clark, iliamna,becharof and so on. Comparing this vast ecosystem to cook inlet with its 2 major producers of Skilak and Tustemena is ridiculous. And your last statement, about the king problem, has nothing at all to do eith overescapement. Nice game,that. Cheers-

  3. Just my observation but this year on the Kenai River the pink run was small. And, the pinks that returned were small. In the past, when the run was small, the pinks were large. 2016 comes to mind when the state record pink salmon was broken twice on the same day on the Kenai. One year not a trend make, but I wonder if we reached a tipping point.

    • Gunner, If you believe that all
      Watersheds have a carrying capacity what does that mean. We know that in all the years of sockeye returns to the Kenai that there has never been a year that the escapement has failed to replace itself except arguably one year when the returns were pretty much average followed by a big harvest year. We also know that in the time since limited entry was adopted along with pro active policy and management under the BOF and ADF&G that far more fish are being harvested and spawning than before.
      So the question is what is the carrying capacity and what does it mean. Is it when there is a less than one for one return? Is it no returns at all? You tell me Gunner. And tell me what bad affects does it have on the resource. How do we identify carrying capacity yearly? Interesting!

  4. You keep pedling this pet theory that hatchery pink salmon are grazing down the ocean to the detriment of other salmon species, like Chinook salmon.

    Any physical evidence of to support this theory generated by a bored fisheries scientist on a laptop.

    Maybe the stomach contents of both pink and Chinook salmon caught in the same area. Just about and cape seine fishery in Alaska will simultaneously catch pink and Chinook salmon.

    Considering both the extreme size differences of these two species of salmon, and the pink salmon are surface dwellers and Chinook are bottom dwellers makes me question this over grazing the ocean theory.

    Additionally, the ocean is huge and not homogenous. Deer in Washington Stae are not impacted by grazing condions for deer in Montana. The north pacific is many times larger than the continental US. Treating it like one single pasture, is questionable on its face.

    How many salmon were grazing the ocean in 1800? Probably far more than today.

    Fisheries theories generated on a laptop, but not tested by considerable fieldwork, in nothing of value, but just another untested pet theory.

    • It’s all theoretical as much science is, but you grossly underestimate the range of salmon. These are Montana deer that graze their way north into Alberta, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alaska before looping back to graze their way home to Montana via Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

      The North Pacific is one pasture, but there are good parts of that pasture and bad parts of that pasture and some possible chokepoints that could be very important.

      Whatever the case, all wild ecosystems have a carrying capacity, and the North Pacific now appears to be at or near its. This is the reason the Japanese,, once the world leader in salmon ranching, stopped their steady increases in hatchery salmon years ago. They’d reached the point where putting more young fish into the system was getting counter-productive.

      • Sorry Craig but I have to respectfully disagree. The North Pacific may be one pasture, but it is not utilized by all salmon as a single pasture. There are regions utilized by some salmon and not others. Theoretically North America is a single pasture, but in reality it is also really a bunch of regional pastures.

        By my back of cocktail napkin calculations in 1800 from California to Alaska the Virginia salmon systems were pumping far more salmon smolt into the ocean then, than we are today.

        For us to over graze the ocean, we would at least have to be pumping more smolt into the ocean today, then was being naturally produced in 1800. Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia are currently producing approximately 5% of the salmon smolt that they were producing in 1800. That is an enormous amount of missing smolt on the pasture.

        Seems like a theory that is not really trying to chase down the facts.

        How many smolt were entering the North Pacific in 1800?

        How many smolt are entering the North Pacific today?

        Until scientists answer these two basic questions, how can anyone take this theory seriously?

      • Doug: The data says you’re wrong. There are areas of the NP where a single species of salmon has been found to predominate at some point in time, but those areas shift and move as do the predominate species. It’s one big mixing zone of fish feeding on overlapping favored prey.

        And given that salmon from all over the West Coast end up scattered all over the GOA, there is no doubt but that it is one big pasture. If you take the sockeye map here and overlay it on a Chinook map, you will find big overlaps:

        If you just look at juvenile tag recovers, you will see “Columbia River spring Chinook salmon were recovered as far north as Prince William Sound, Alaska, during their first summer at sea.” And that’ s just the first summer. Some of those Columbia fish had been found to travel 500 or 600 miles at sea before returning.

        Now, if you have a link for smolt entering the NP in 1800, please provide it. It does appear that the Columbia River, once one of the West Coast most productive systems, is today pumping about three times the historic number of smolt into the ocean but, unfortunately, they’re not coming back like they once did.

        I won’t even get into the issue of “chokepoints,” which have been way too little study, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one such existed off the mouth of Cook Inlet.

      • I don’t want to argumentative, but you just made another statement, without any evidence or calculations to back up your statement.

        Here is your statement:

        “It does appear that the Columbia River, once one of the West Coast most productive systems, is today pumping about three times the historic number of smolt into the ocean ”

        So, how many smolt are being released from the Columbia River today?

        Then, how many smolt were leaving the Columbia River during the early 1800’s?

        Once you do both these smolt calculations, then you can state the ratio like “three times the historical number”

        You have to do the math before you can calculate a ratio.

        Where did you get the three times number? Reference?

        Did you make it up out of thin air.

        Remember in 1800 the Columbia River had both pinks and chum salmon. That smolt needs to be estimated.

      • Are you suggesting Public Broadcasting and Politico would make this up?

        OK, I’ll admit I’m a little skeptical of that three times claim, too, but hatcheries do an immeasurably better job of getting salmon from the fry to smolt stage than does nature. And one could extrapolate fry production from the size of estimated numbers of spawners in the Columbia system in 1800 and work forward from there to get some idea of what the likely historical numbers were for smolt in that system in 1800.

        And from that calculate a ratio.

        Getting a coastwide estimate on smolt production would be orders of magnitue harder than getting such an estimate for one river system. So I’m still waiting for your link on the claim to more smolt coastwide in 1800 than today.

      • Glad to see you state that all wild ecosystems have a carrying capacity. This is a known fact, yet many think that overescapement is something made up by commercial fishery interests seeking to harvest more of the resource.

      • Gunner says: ” Glad to see you state that all wild ecosystems have a carrying capacity. This is a known fact, yet many think that overescapement is something made up by commercial fishery interests seeking to harvest more of the resource.”

        We’ve been saying this for a long time. Commfish use of overescapement is pretty cute, waving their hands in abject horror over the possibility that there will be a single fish available that they are not allowed to catch. Problem with all this is that once you agree with the notion that overescapement in any single river system exists, you then allow commfish associated ADF&G / BoF to arbitrarily set that number as low as humanly possible.

        Commfish proves overescapement numbers for river systems are arbitrary yearly, when Bristol Bay which overescapes regularly by huge numbers, continues to have huge returns. OTOH, Cook Inlet, which has arbitrarily ratcheted down king escapement numbers for the last two decades, has a king problem that continues to get worse.

        Nice game, that. Cheers –

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