A news analysis
With advocates for Alaska salmon hatcheries once again singing their praises, the time has come to revisit what was promised when the now massive 49th state hatchery program was begun and what has actually been delivered.
The praise is built on the idea, as Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce executive director Michelle O’Brien recently described it, that hatcheries are “one bedrock of our economy…from commercial fishing to sport fishing enterprises and tourism.”
There is no denying Alaska hatcheries provide big benefits for a small number of salmon processors, nearly all of them Seattle-based, and a larger, but still small, collection of Alaska seiners. But Alaska Department of Fish and Game records show the number of fish produced for other fisheries – including commercial gillnet and troll fisheries – comes nowhere close to meeting the original promise of what hatcheries would deliver.
Here is the promise as recorded by Fish and Game in 1983 when Alaska’s open-ocean farming of the sea was just beginning:
“The long-term plan for salmon in Alaska calls for nearly 143 million fish for harvest annually, of which 51 million are to be produced by enhancement and rehabilitation techniques. Included within this harvest of 51 million are 25 million chum, 8 million sockeye, 1.5 million coho, and 300,000 Chinook salmon; the remainder will be made up of pink salmon.”
Over the course of the last 39 years, the goal has been met once for coho, which is way better than the performance on the goals for chum, sockeye, and Chinook, the most valuable and desired of Alaska salmon. Those goals have never been met.
But the goal has been hugely exceeded for pink salmon, the least valuable and least desired of Alaska salmon, and a species that in the view of some scientists is now so plentiful in the North Pacific Ocean that it is by sheer numbers affecting the size and number of other salmon species.
The state hatchery plan called for the state’s free-range salmon farms, or ranching operations as advocates prefer to call these businesses, to produce 16.2 million pink salmon per year. They have produced far more.
The 2021 harvest was three times that, and 2021 was nowhere near a record year for hatchery pinks.
In 2013, according to Fish and Game, Alaska hatcheries produced 91.79 million pinks – more than five and half times the original goal. Salmon processors, or at least those in that business who make their money off pinks, and commercial fishermen, or at least the minority of commercial fishermen who make their livings on the backs of pinks, couldn’t have asked for more.
The fastest growing but smallest of the Pacific salmon, humpies have long been a mainstay of the canned salmon industry in the north, and though they aren’t considered the best salmon to toss on the grill, they aren’t exactly hated.
Sometimes detested might be a better description, given that they return, especially in odd-numbered years, in such numbers that they can get in the way of anglers, dipnetters, and even commercial fishermen targeting sockeye, coho (silver) and Chinook salmon.
The latter are what Alaskans call kings. They are the biggest and most prized salmon in the state. Were hatcheries producing kings as Alaskans were promised in 1983, the production of 300,000 per year would have exceeded last year’s commercial catch of 265,000 of the big fish by 35,000, and come up just short of the combined commercial and sport catch of about 350,000.
The catch by anglers is now down to slightly less than 85,000 kings per year. That’s less than 75 percent of the average catch of about 114,000 kings per year from 1985 to 1990 when the state hatchery program was still in its infancy.
Because of the state’s success in creating a manmade, hatchery-driven king salmon fishery in Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage, a lot of 49th-state anglers live under the illusion that hatcheries are a boon for sport fishermen. The data indicates otherwise.
The fewer than 1,500 hatchery kings caught in Ship Creek in the best of years are a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands of kings now missing from other fisheries and the unfulfilled state promise of producing 300,000 per year on top of natural, wild production.
As hatchery production has gone up and up and up in Alaska, the reality is that sport and commercial catches of Chinook have gone steadily down. The numbers look even worse in a historical context than they do in a modern context.
Back in the bad, old 1970s when Alaska salmon production was considered horribly depressed, the average annual commercial catch of Chinook was 569,000 kings per year, according to state Fish and Game data. The commercial catch alone was then nearly 40 percent bigger than the combined sport and commercial catch today, and there was then almost no hatchery production in Alaska.
The salmon crash of the 1970s is what led 49th state voters to approve an amendment to the Alaska Constitution that allowed for the creation of limited entry in the commercial fishing business, and to their willingness to support spending almost $75 million (about $263 million in today’s dollars) to build salmon hatcheries in that decade.
The fishing permits were handed out free to experienced fishermen and became their personal property to hold or sell.
The limited entry program has proven a bonanza for some fishermen who made a lot of money when salmon prices were high in the 1980s and then sold their permits at prices that allowed them to comfortably retire. The hatchery program, which the state likewise established to benefit the commercial fishery, proved to be a gold mine for an even more limited number of commercial fishermen.
Prince William Sound seiners were the biggest winners. Thanks to massive salmon production in the Sound, their harvests grew from millions of pinks per year to tens of millions of pinks per year. Unfortunately, pinks are so low in value that most other commercial fishermen ignore them.
For a commercial gillnetter, who must pluck fish from a net rather than brail them into the hold of a boat, it makes a lot more sense to focus on sockeye salmon worth an average $1.77 per pound last year than pink salmon worth an average 42 cents, according to state Fish and Game documents.
Not only are humpies worth less than a quarter of sockeyes on average, they are about half the weight, meaning that just to get the same poundage of fish a fisherman has to spend twice as much effort yanking gilled salmon out of monofilament mesh.
Twice the work for a quarter of the value is not a good business model.
The situation is, however, different for seiners who surround the fish with a huge net, capture them in it, and then dump the whole load into their boat’s hold. They have been the big beneficiary of the hatcheries which, as the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) has noted, were “transferred to private non-profit regional aquaculture associations” controlled by commercial fishermen after the state decided it couldn’t afford the high cost of operating hatcheries.
To help alter the economic situation for the new operators, according to ISER, “the s state supported hatchery development by loaning money to private non-profit organizations for hatchery construction and operations,” subsidized hatcheries to the tune of $5 million to $9 million per year to produce salmon for sport fisheries, and most importantly allowed them to engage in so-called “cost-recovery” fishing to finance their operating costs.
According to Fish and Game, the average pink caught in 2021 weighed three pounds. At that weight and with pinks going for 42 cents a pound, 8 million of them would be worth something around $10 million. With chums at an average of 6.3 pounds and 92 cents per pound, 2.3 million of them would be worth about $13 million.
In its 2021 Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report, Fish and Game is honest about what the hatchery program ha become in Alaska – a profit-making scheme for some commercial fishermen and processors.
“Some salmon species are more economical to rear,” the report says. “Pink salmon are the most economical to rear because they have a short rearing time – one winter in the hatchery – and have the shortest life cycle of Pacific salmon, two years.
“This means pink salmon provide a quick return on investment and provide the highest economic return for the production costs. Chum salmon have the same rearing time in the hatchery but have a longer life cycle (three to four years); therefore, they have a longer return on investment. Pink and chum salmon are the bulk of Alaska hatchery production because they have the highest return on investment for the cost of production.”
Chinook, sockeye and coho are harder and more costly to rear, and thus very few of them are produced. And the promises made to Alaskans?
Alaska’s free-range salmon farming in the North Pacific now rivals that of the Japanese, who pioneered production hatcheries starting in the 1950s, according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, a treaty organization.
Whether that is a problem or not has caused much debate, but what is clear is that Alaskans have not gotten what they were promised when the Alaska hatchery program began in the 1980s. State fishery managers have instead allowed the hatcheries to largely paint the production pink.