New ocean order

North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission

The salmon fishing industries of Alaska and Russia look poised to continue as the big beneficiaries of global warming, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAC) has been told, with Canada and the U.S. West Coast the big losers.

Salmon fisheries in the latter regions peaked in the late 1980s and have been trending downward ever since. A PowerPoint presented to the commission by Canadian scientist Brendan Connors at a meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada last month suggested the differences between northern and southern returns of salmon will only grow as the North Pacific Ocean continues to warm.

“On average, there are more salmon in the North Pacific now than any time in the past century,” he noted, but about approximately one out of every five of the salmon are of hatchery origin and those farmed fish – or “ranched” fish as Alaska hatcheries operators prefer to call them – “may exacerbate conservation risks and curtail fisheries in the south.”

Alaska salmon, however, do not appear universally immune to the problems of changing and climate and interspecies competition for food on a shrinking range. One of the graphics Connors presented forecast a continued shrinkage in summer sockeye salmon habitat in the Gulf of Alaska and a steady shift west toward Bristol Bay and into the Bering Sea.

If his predictions are right, summer habitat for sockeye east of a line near Sand Point on the Alaska Peninsula will be gone by 2080. Such a shift could have broad implications for sockeye from Kodiak Island east and south as young sockeye from Cook Inlet, the Copper River, and a variety of Canadian streams would be required to travel much greater distances to reach summer feeding grounds and then face stiff competition from Bristol Bay sockeye already there orging.


Bristol bounty

Bristol Bay has already been a big beneficiary of warming.

As the lakes of Southwest Alaska have warmed, they have become more productive allowing young sockeye to grow faster and go to sea earlier. There they encounter a marine climate also made more productive by warming which increases their chances of survival.

The Bay this year witnessed an unprecedented return of sockeye. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game put the total count at 79 million, approaching twice the 20-year average return.

The commercial catch of 60.1 million of the fish “was the largest harvest on record, surpassing the previous record set in 1995 of 44.3 million sockeye salmon by 36 percent,” the agency reported. “All sockeye salmon escapement goals were met or exceeded, with a total bay-wide escapement of 18.9 million fish.”

Elsewhere harvests were not nearly so good and largely in line with Connors’ predictions for the future. The Upper Cook Inlet harvest of 1.1 million sockeye, according to Fish and Game,  fell short of the preseason harvest estimate of “approximately 1.4 million sockeye salmon, which is 1.3 million fish less than the 20-year average annual, commercial sockeye salmon harvest of 2.7 million fish.”

The commercial catch was, however, depressed in part by low participation in the fishery, and the early closure of the commercial setnet fishery to protect a struggling run of king salmon to the Kenai River. In a perfect world, the commercial fishery might have been able to harvest another 800,000 or so sockeye, which would have put the harvest at about 70 percent of the 20-year average which has been dragged steadily downward by low returns in recent years.

Off the mouth of the much-hyped Copper River, arguably the most famous producer of commercially traded sockeye salmon, Fish and Game reported a “harvest of 592,000 fish (which) was 46 percent below the 10-year
harvest average of 1.09 million fish….Sockeye salmon average weight of 5.3 pounds was (also) 0.6 pounds smaller than the 30-year average (1992‒2021) of 5.9 pounds.”

Both sockeye and king salmon have been shrinking in size for years, something many scientists believe is linked to their struggle to find enough to eat in the North Pacific.

In posing the question of whether NPAFC nation’s should limit hatchery production to decrease competition in a changing ocean, Connors observed that evidence to support the hypothesis that hatcheries are causing problems for wild fish has increased in recent years, “but remaining knowledge gaps limit scientific consensus on (the) role of inter- and intraspecific competition and its effects on marine growth and survival.”

More research is needed, he conceded, and proposed funding it with a penny-per-farmed-fish tax dedicated to ocean research. Such a tax, he said, could be expected to raise about $5.15 million per year to study the secret lives of salmon.

Though much is known about the survival of the fish in freshwater, not much is known about survival in the ocean where salmon spend most of their lives. Pacific rim nations have long treated hatcheries as if their dumping of billions of young fish into the ocean has no environmental consequences.

The U.S. government, which requires environmental impact statements (EIS) for any other industry dumping anything into the ocean, has never required a hatchery to produce an EIS outlining the potential consequences of its annual fish dumps.


Alaska’s role

The U.S. was a relatively minor producer of hatchery salmon until the early 1970s when the state of Alaska began gearing up a massive program to farm the ocean. Driven by that Alaska production, the U.S. is now the biggest player in the business of open-ocean farming of salmon.

It annually accounts for nearly 40 percent of the more than 5 billion hatchery salmon dumped in the ocean. It is followed closely by Japan, which started the business of open-ocean farming, and Russia.

Canada, and even more so Korea, are bit players, though the former is talking about ramping up its ocean farming to try to make up for rapidly falling wild returns of salmon.

Connors questioned whether that is a good idea, observing that “in general a warming ocean negatively affects salmon growth and survival at southern latitudes, but positively at northern ones” with “evidence of competition is more pronounced at southern latitudes, potentially because warming partially offsets effects in northern ones.”

Further increasing competition for food by dumping more salmon into an already over-utilized ocean is, as an ecological reality, destined to decrease rather than increase overall production, but no nation involved in the NPAFC – a treaty organization – appears willing to take the lead in freezing or rolling back hatchery production.

“Knowledge gaps limit consensus and action,” Connors argued. “A hatchery tax might help reduce them.”

Most knowledgeable observers of the salmon fishing industry in Alaska said they saw that as a non-starter. Instead of taxing hatcheries for their use of ocean resources, the state of Alaska has spent years helping to fund them.

“Improved communication and collaboration across salmon nations (is) key to balancing the benefits and risks of a warming and more crowded ocean,” Connors said, but that is a much easier statement to made by scientists than by businessmen looking at the bottom line on profits.

Technically, Alaska’s hatcheries are considered private, non-profit (PNP) businesses, but since the state gave them the authority to run so-called “cost-recovery” fisheries, they have been in the business of catching and selling salmon to pay for the costs of operating hatcheries that provide free fish for the permit-holding, Alaska commercial fishermen who run the hatcheries and are the prime beneficiaries of hatchery boosted returns.

(Connors’ complete presentation can be viewed here: 12.Connors.IYS.2022)


4 replies »

  1. What we have seen over the years, whether it be China building our EV components while destroying the environment as Western Nation’s save face by going to environmentally unfriendly EV’s while making trillions in the process. Maybe they release an intentional virus to make trillions, while killing millions, to save the environment with billions of masks littering the seas and land?
    Salmon is no different. It is all about money parading around as “Global Warming” fabricated by Political Science. It all is a scam. Sorry!

    • Of course, it’s all about money (all animals want to get fat) except when it is about control, Bryan. The former would argue against the Chinese releasing a virus. They were making more money before than they have since.

      On the other hand, control – China still has lockdowns going on all over the country ( – would provide a motive for releasing a virus.

      I don’t think they did. Tolitarian regimes winning in the marketplace do not like to inject chaos.

      A lab leak? That can’t yet be ruled out, and human bumbling is part of human nature, sometimes most especially among those who think they are oh-so smart. And here, China does have motive.

      The Chinese are looking a lot like the Japanese circa 1930.

      And then, there is this just in….”On Nov. 12 of (2019), a dispatch by party branch members at the BSL-4 laboratory appeared to reference a biosecurity breach: once you have opened the stored test tubes, it is just as if having opened Pandora’s Box. These viruses come without a shadow and leave without a trace. Although [we have] various preventive and protective measures, it is nevertheless necessary for lab personnel to operate very cautiously to avoid operational errors that give rise to dangers. Every time this has happened, the members of the Zhengdian Lab [BSL4] Party Branch have always run to the frontline, and they have taken real action to mobilize and motivate other research personnel.”

      • Craig, you forget about the 270 million Chinese 70 and older with no means or desire to provide for them. No nursing homes, Assisted Living facilities, nor the Communist desire to spend billions to sustain them. Especially with their past “one child” policy. Of course Covid was purposefully released. There are very few “accidents” in China and those that happen are paid for with someone’s life. As someone I am sure who has never been to China or understands the “Party”, it is hard to comprehend the utter disregard for life. Especially old life.
        As for lockdowns, don’t be silly. The PRC/CCP could careless. That is all merely a reminder who is really in charge.

  2. Thanks for keeping us thinking about hatcheries. Release more to get more. Why not? The Mighty Pacific is huge. There must be room for a few billion hatchery babies to grow and survive to fill our hooks and nets. What can be the problem with fixing Nature’s naturally poor egg-to-fry survival “problem” with incubators? What can be the problem with thinking we can do better than nature in nature? What can be the problem with thinking we can get something for nothing? Is our industrial-scale hatchery ocean ranching industry the last industry on Earth still thinking so? I think so. Is there an ecological niche for hatcheries? I think not. Do we need more studies and scientists to prove Nature right. I think not. A hundred- plus years of hatchery boom-and-busts is experiment enough. Do we need to phase out hatcheries now to promote healthier populations and stocks of salmon in the future? Absolutely. If we want more salmon we will need to maintain the distribution and abundance of fertilizers (wild spawners) – and think more about how New Zealand is planning to grow salmon to harvestable size in glacier water fed recirculating aquaculture systems.

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