Even when things are bad, it’s good to be a commercial fisherman in Alaska.
In the fat years, salmon fill the nets, and they haul in boatloads of cash. And in the lean years, the government jumps in with bailouts.
Largely unnoticed back in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it was making $131.8 million in “disaster allocations” available for those who hold limited entry permits to fish in the 49th state with more than $34 million of that surprisingly directed toward Prince William Sound and Copper River fishermen.
Those same fishermen were the beneficiaries of more than $56 million in 2016, and it’s quite possible could be in line for tens of millions more for this year’s weak return of pink salmon to the Sound.
There is a pattern here that now tracks the boom-and-bust cycle of pinks, which once returned to the tune of an average 3 million per year, but now return at an average about 10 times that thanks in significant part to hatcheries built by the state of Alaska or commercial fishermen with the help of the state of Alaska.
The problem in the Sound now, if one can call it a problem, is that the even-year returns are only five or six times the historic average and commercial fishermen have come to expect returns 10, 20 or 30 times larger than that historic number.
Who could have seen this coming in an era of increasingly sophisticated fisheries management?
The fundamental idea behind the management of wild resources is that human-designed conservation efforts can to some degree stabilize the natural ups and downs in abundance inherent in unmanaged ecosystems.
He made the comment in reference to wolf control, but he could have just as easily been talking about fisheries management. The oft-proclaimed but rarely seen problem of the “over-escapement” of salmon is all about letting nature run wild.
Commercial fishermen, especially those who fish Cook Inlet, fervently argue that if “too many” salmon are allowed into Alaska streams and rivers, they will crowd the spawning grounds, produce an over-abundance of young, and spark a fishery collapse in the style of the well-known disaster that struck the mule deer of Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau.
The Kaibab is where the late Aldo Leopold, an icon of the early environmental movement in the U.S., made his name. Many now consider Leopold the father of “wildlife ecology” for his studies there. Lawrence Culver, a California historian, offers a nice summary of what Leopold discovered on the plateau along the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
“During the 1920s, in one of the most notorious examples of a destructive interplay between ecology and wildlife management, Forest Service officials inaugurated a campaign to cleanse the plateau of mountain lions and other predators. This decision resulted from value judgments made about the relative worth of various animals. Deer were appealing, sympathetic animals, and had both scenic and sport-hunting potential. The Park Service, as well as the state of Arizona, believed that a large deer herd would bring tourists and revenue. Predators, on the other hand, were simply bloodthirsty killers that decimated deer and livestock.
“The apparent result of this simpleminded view of nature was disaster. In a story retold by textbooks, natural history museums, and most famously by Aldo Leopold, the deer population experienced an irruption, and devoured all the forage on the plateau. The population then crashed as the deer starved in vast numbers. Photographs of a ‘deer line,’ located just above the highest point deer could reach on trees and shrubs, and consequently the only places not stripped completely bare, became ‘a hallmark for wildlife management disasters for decades to come.’ Instead of abundant game, as Leopold wrote, all that was left were the bleached bones of the ‘hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much’.”
There is now considerable debate about what exactly happened for the Kaibab deer population to grow from 4,000 animals in 1905 to 100,000 in 1924 and then crash, but ecologists – no matter whether they are in the wildlife or fishery business – agree on the theoretical underpinnings of Leopold’s work which dictate that trying to create too much of a good thing can produce a very bad outcome.
Too many fish
This is what the over-escapement concern is all about, and never mind that nature has a way of fixing these sorts of problems. Or that sometimes people have the sense to work with nature instead of trying to make nature better than it can be.
Pink salmon in Prince William Sound (PWS) are a different story. There have been nothing but irruptions and crashes for some time now. The differences between odd-year and even-year pink salmon catches dwarf the biggest average harvests for any period in the first 90 years of the fishery’s history.
“The long-term history of pink salmon catches in PWS reveals four distinct periods,” wrote Ray Hilborn, a University of Washington professor and Doug Eggerts, then a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in a 2000 review of the state’s growing hatchery production of pink salmon.
“From 1896 to 1913, annual catch was less 1 million; 1916 – 1950 catches averaged 5.8 million fish per year; 1951 – 1979 catches dropped considerably to 3.3 million per year; and since 1980 catch has averaged 20.6 million fish per year.”
The Good Friday earthquake of 1964 has been blamed for some of the drop between 1951 and 1979. The quake uplifted some streams in the Sound, rendering them impassable for spawning salmon. The hatcheries have been credited with the increased post-1980 catch, which has only gone up since Hillborn and Eggers wrote their report.
The 2013 odd-year harvest hit 92.6 million – then a record, according to Fish and Game data, but fell to less than half of that the next year.
Still, the 44.3 million pinks that were caught in 2012 were a sizable number for an even-numbered year, but odd-numbered 2015 would prove a bonanza.
The odd-year harvest of pinks in the Sound that year hit 98.3 million fish, setting a new and still standing record, in a land where a statewide catch of 1`00 million salmon was once considered a good year.
“Wild pink salmon abundance is likely to break the previous record of 31 million fish,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) bragged at the time without mentioning that hatcheries produced the other 61.6 million or about twice as many “humpies,” as Alaskans call these fish.
The wild component of that 2015 return was near double what would turn out to be a harvest of but 12.88 million pinks in the even-numbered year of 2016, and almost half of those 2016 pinks were scooped up by the hatcheries in what the state describes as “cost recovery” operations.
Unlike other West Coast states which run government-funded hatcheries to try to preserve wild runs of fish (an idea that has increasingly come under fire) or provide limited numbers of costly to raise Chinook and coho salmon for sports who fund “sport fish restoration” projects (usually in the form of hatcheries) through taxes on fishing gear.
Alaska’s major hatcheries are run by private, nonprofit corporations controlled by commercial fishermen to provide fish for their nets and support continual hatchery operations.
The popular hatchery runs of king (Chinook) and silver (coho) salmon to Ship Creek in Anchorage are an example of the “sport fish restoration” program.
“ADF&G Division of Sport Fish hatcheries in Anchorage and Fairbanks…produce fish for sport fisheries in Cook Inlet, Resurrection Bay, Prince William Sound, Southeast, and the Interior,” the state notes. “The hatcheries are primarily funded from the federal excise tax on fishing-related equipment under the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act.”
The state’s big, private, high-production, nonprofit (PNP) hatcheries, on the other hand, get most of their money from cost-recovery fishing operations, though some commercial fishermen do pay an assessment to the regional aquaculture associations running the hatcheries. Those associations were set up by the state and are controlled by commercial fishermen.
The hatcheries began as a means to provide salmon solely for “common property” fisheries, but the state later granted the PNPs authority to harvest whatever volume of hatchery fish they need to finance their operations.
Thus the near 50-50 split between the “common property” and the hatcheries in the Sound in 20`16.
Winner and losers
While at first blush this might appear a loser for commercial fishermen, who benefit more when hatchery salmon end up in their nets as common-property harvests than when the hatchery catches them for cost recovery, the reality of the situation is a little more complex.
As Hillborn and Eggers wrote in their American Fisheries Society review hatcheries helped boost the pink catch to an average 20.6 million per year. Since then hit has gone even higher despite those horrible even-numbered years.
The five-year average for Prince William Sound (PWS), counting the even-year harvest of about 26.8 million this season, stands at approximately 35.1 million pinks or more than 10 times the average of the good, old days and 75 percent above that 1980 to 2000 catch, although Fish and Game biologists have noted a hint of a downward shift.
“The 2018‒2020 average commercial salmon harvest of 37.6 million fish was 32 percent lower than the 2008–2017 average (55.3 million fish; 2008‒2017) for this area,” state biologists reported to the state Board of Fisheries in October of last year. “This decline was primarily due to poor returns to hatcheries within the PWS area.”
Part of this decline was due to combining two even-numbered years – 2018 and 2020 – with one odd-numbered year. The 2019-20“21 average, which combined two odd-numbered years with a single, even-numbered one, makes for a bigger 42.7 million pink average, but that is still 23 percent below the earlier 10-year average of 55.3 million.
What is really hard to miss here, however, is – as Fish and Game notes – the oscillation in harvests, along with a major decline in returns of sockeye salmon to the Copper River just south of the Sound.
Researchers have linked weaker returns there to increased hatchery production of pinks in the Sound, but as Bill Templeton, the director of commercial fishery research for the state likes to remind everyone, “correlation is not causation.”
Correlation clearly exists there. Templeton in 2018 presented the Fish Board with an 84-screen Powerpoint presentation explaining the complexities of salmon genetics and the even more impenetrable tangle that is the ecosystem of the North Pacific Ocean, and than offered the view that the latter was too difficult to even study.
He failed to mention the other correlation, the one between who finances research and what research gets done, or a 2005 study of the Sound’s hatchery pinks published in Deep Sea Research which warned of the potential for “ecological bottlenecks” that swarms of hatchery fish could cause by eating all available salmon prey in some area and thus dooming wild young to starvation.
It’s that old “carrying capacity” issue that felled the deer of the Kaibab plateau in a different time and space.