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.
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.
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.