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 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.
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)