More than 50 years after Alaska banned fish traps amid a popular belief they were man’s greatest threat to the survival of salmon, researchers studying salmon bycatch on the Columbia River have published a scientific paper declaring the exact opposite.
“…The findings of our research support the conclusions of prior studies and further suggest that passively operated fish traps may allow for selective harvesting of targeted fish stocks with little to no mortality of adult salmonid bycatch,” they reported in Fisheries Research, an online journal, earlier this month.
The researchers from the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the Wild Fish Conservancy, an advocacy group, spent three years trapping Chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon on the Columbia, tagging them and then tracking their survival as they made their way upstream toward spawning grounds.
Nearly all of the salmon caught and held in the in-river traps on the Columbia survived for the four to six days it took them to travel from the trap upriver to the Bonneville Dam after their release.
The results of the study, they said, “suggest that recently developed commercial fish trapping techniques can allow for selective harvesting of hatchery-produced fish (and other abundant fish runs) while achieving nearly 100 percent post-release survival of Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed adult salmonids.”
They admitted that the sample size for the study was small, but added that “the fact that 88 of 88 of the passive integrated transponder (PIT)-tagged sample that had been assigned to upper-basin populations were detected at Bonneville Dam in the absence of a control group is highly persuasive and corroborates the findings of prior studies for passively operated fish traps that estimated survival at” 100 percent.
Commercial fishery bycatch of endangered wild salmon has become a major issue on the Columbia in modern times as has the commercial bycatch of struggling king salmon in commercial nets off the mouth of Alaska’s Kenai River.
The Wild Fish Conservancy was heralding the results of the latest research as a game changer.
“The new publication provides the most clear-cut and irrefutable evidence to date that fish traps can nearly eliminate unintended mortality of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead during harvest, allowing for sustainable and resilient commercial fisheries that can be enjoyed for generations to come,” Emma Helverson, the group’s executive director proclaimed on the Conservancy’s website. “It is rare to find a win-win solution with such widespread benefits for wild fish, orcas (killer whales), resource managers, and coastal fishing communities.”
Commercial fishermen were not racing to embrace the idea.
Though commercial fish traps were banned in Alaska amid claims they had destroyed the territory’s salmon runs and were a threat to salmon survival in the fledgling state, the real issue was with money and control.
Fiercely independent commercial fishermen who caught salmon with nets didn’t like the efficiency of the traps or the fact many were controlled by Seattle-based businesses.
“The concentration of trap ownership in the hands of a handful of nonresident corporations was particularly galling,” Alaska economist Steve Colt more than 20 years ago wrote in a history of the traps.
Therein he quoted the 1960 observation of the late economist George Rogers that “the traps have long been the principal bete noire of Alaskan political demonology. The anti-trap case has been emotionally distorted to the point where even Alaskans who have never seen one would readily brand them as “fish killers” and look upon them as the very embodiment of evil in this world….
The traps were a key rallying point in the call for Alaska Statehood. Territorial residents were confident that if the traps were banned they could rest control of the salmon fishery from Outside interests.
That never happened. The industry is still controlled by Outside interests.
“Of the 6.4 billion pounds of seafood harvested in Alaska in 2017, the United Fishermen of Alaska’s 2018 Alaska Commercial Fishing and Seafood Processing report listed 4.6 billion pounds – almost two-thirds – harvested by permit holders from Washington, Oregon or California.
The numbers haven’t changed much since then, but the UFA has become more discrete in talking about them as the ownership of fishing rights through so-called “limited entry” permits has become increasingly controversial.
The transformation in the industry, especially in rural Alaska, has become so obvious it has finally caught the idea of the state’s publicly funded media, which is wondering why local residents of Bristol Bay haven’t benefitted from the global-warming bounty of salmon now showing up there.
The fundamental problem Alaska has faced since territorial days is that a considerable number of people who can afford to spend their time elsewhere during the state’s long, dark winters spend their time elsewhere.
The Anchorage Metropolitan Area, with most of the comforts of major cities, has been the one obvious instate beneficiary of the shift. It is now home to more than half the state’s population. The winters might be just as long and dark there as in the fishing port of Dillingham in far Western Alaska, but they seem less so when you can entertain yourself with the distractions of urban life.
All of which has factored into the evolution of the state’s fisheries.
Commercial fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage now see the weekend warriors who each summer flood there to dipnet salmon to fill their freezers or chase the fish with rod and reel for sport as a bigger threat to their pocketbooks than the trappers once were while many of the dipnetters, and even more of the anglers, see the commercial fishermen of Cook Inlet as a bigger threat to the salmon today than the traps were back when.
And no matter how traps might benefit them both, there has been no serious discussion of their reintroduction since the 1980s when Anchorage real estate developer and Kenai River homeowner Bob Penney suggested putting a fish trap in the Kenai River.
Penney had a consultant draw up a plan for a trap that would have been run by a collective of the commercial fishermen who’d once worked the Inlet with each pocketing a share of the revenue based on the size of their historic catches.
Penney – who was then and has ever since been detested by commercial fishermen despite his being invested in the commercial fishing business – had little interest in the millions of returning Kenai sockeye salmon that fuel the commercial fishery.
He was happy to let commercial fishermen split the take on the harvest of those fish but wanted a fish trap to allow king salmon to escape entanglement in commercial nets.
At that time, the Kenai supported the world’s premier king salmon sport fishery. Anglers came from around the globe to pursue the biggest of the biggest of Pacific salmon.
Today it is rare to see a king of 70- or 80-pounds, and angling has been closed more often than it has been open to protect the limited number of fish that make it back into the river.
Some anglers blame the commercial fishery in the way Alaskans once blamed the traps, but there are no indications commercial fishermen are to blame.
The decline has upped the pressure to eliminate the harvest of Pacific Northwest Chinook in the commercial troll fisheries off Alaska’s Panhandle and clean up the bycatch of Chinook in salmon fisheries everywhere.
The latest research suggesting a shift in fishing techniques going back to the future – the Conservancy likes to make a big deal out of how trapping is a thousand years old aboriginal fishing technique on the West Coast – is sure to generate considerable discussion, but is unlikely to change anything in the 49th state.
Commercial fishing interests now hold the sort of political power instate that the trap owners held when the territorial fishery was being managed by the federal government in the nation’s capital.