The hidden costs of Alaska hatcheries
Commercial salmon fishermen all along the West Coast of North America may be paying a serious price in lost poundage to help put dollars in the pockets of 267 Alaska fishermen who hold state permits to seine salmon from the waters of Prince William Sound if new research is to be believed.
Most of the fish those Sound fishermen catch are hatchery pink salmon, the smallest of the six North Pacific species. And though these are the lowest-value salmon caught in the 49th state, Alaska Commercial Fishery Entry Commission records reflect that the value of the catch to the seiners has more than doubled from annual average “real earnings” per permit of about $106,000 per year in the 1990s to an average of $266,000 in the 2010s.
This wealth has come thanks to a system of Alaska hatcheries built to farm the ocean. Many of these were originally funded by the state of Alaska but are now under the control of private, nonprofit corporations run by commercial fishing interests. The hatcheries boosted salmon production in the state’s Panhandle, on Kodiak Island and especially in the Sound.
Hatcheries there transformed a fishery that produced annual, average catches of 3 million pinks per year in the 1950s, ’60 and ’70s into a business that can now boast a 10-times bigger annual haul with a five-year, average, annual catch of 34.3 million “humpies” as Alaskans most often call these three-pound salmon.
All of this has been good for Sound seiners, hatchery personnel involved in farming the ocean, lower-48-based salmon processors with plants in the Sound and, to a lesser extent, the 537 commercial fishermen who hold permits to gillnet salmon in the Sound. But two new studies suggest that turning the Sound into a pink-salmon factory both through the use of hatcheries and state management to maximize humpy production while ramping up hatchery farming of the ocean with hatcheries elsewhere in the state has helped put so many little salmon in the ocean that the bigger ones sometimes struggle to find enough food.
The end result, the researchers contend, is a steady shrinkage in the average size of both sockeye and Chinook salmon, and each ounce of weight lost from these high-value fish takes money out of the pockets of commercial fishermen who make their livings catching wild fish.
And the winners are?
On one level, there is no doubt the hatchery program has been a huge success. The ocean-ranching operations run by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC) and the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) now catch more pink salmon to finance their operations than commercial fishermen once netted while fishing throughout the 2,500-square-mile Sound.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game last year permitted VFDA and PWSAC to harvest 4.72 million of these ocean-farmed pinks for so-called “cost-recovery” and broodstock. The cost-recovery operations subsidized the production of an estimated 17.1 million ocean-farmed pinks that were, as they say in Alaska, “wild-caught,” primarily in the purse seine fishery.
Some pinks are also caught in the Sound’s commercial gillnet fisheries but their value is so low – less than 50 cents per pound – that most gillnetters don’t bother with them. The state reported the 2022 gillnet harvest of humpies at less than 800,000.
Sound gillnetters do, however, net other benefits from the hatcheries.
The cost-recovery pinks help subsidize not only continued pink production but the rearing of the ocean-farmed chum and sockeye salmon caught in the gillnet fisheries. Sound chums, often marketed as “keta” salmon, are generally more than twice the size of humpies and worth more than twice as much per pound. Sockeye salmon, meanwhile, are near twice the size of humpies on average and worth up to six times more per pound.
Though peer-reviewed research has concluded the industrial-scale production of pinks in the Sound is depressing the size of the wild return of sockeye to the Copper River, once a mainstay of the largely Cordova-based gillnet fishery, gillnetters have been getting a significant payback for that loss in the form of hatchery fish.
Fish and Game this year calculated a gillnet harvest of 1.83 million hatchery chums in the Sound and 730,000 hatchery sockeye. The hatchery sockeye catch topped the Copper River harvest of 592,000 sockeye, now down to but 46 percent of the 10-year average of 1.09 million, according to Fish and Game.
More than 97 percent of the Copper fish were reported to be wild. A small sockeye salmon hatchery on the Gulkana River, a tributary to the Copper far upstream, was once considered one of the state’s great ocean-farming success stories, but it has in recent years been faltering for unknown reasons. Fish and Game reported its production this year as “the third lowest in the last 20 years,”
Still, the 730,000 hatchery sockeye plus the 592,000 Copper sockeye (585,600 of them believed to be wild), that hung themselves in the gillnets of Sound fishermen in 2022 totaled more than 1.3 million fish, the same as the 20-year average catch for the state’s most famous salmon river, and those nearly 2 million chums at an average weight of six and half pounds were a better than $14 million bonus, according to state data.
About two-thirds of the chums caught in the Sound are tangled in the mesh of gillnets. The rest are caught by seiners.
Add to the hatchery catch the fact that fishing near hatcheries in the protected waters of the Sound is far safer than fishing the Gulf of Alaska off the mouth of the Copper, which has killed several fishermen over the years, and the hatcheries come up a significant plus for the gillnet fishermen as well as seiners, even if the real earnings of the former haven’t increased by nearly as much as for the latter.
The Commerical Entry Commission puts their average at $66,000 for the five years ending the decade of the ’70s. The five-year average through 2020 was $71,100, a number driven downward by the disastrous 2020 season of the pandemic that produced both low prices for sockeye and a catch of less than 1 million total as the Copper run faltered.
The Entry Commission reported average earnings of but $21,162 per permit that year. But commercial fishermen in Alaska are lucky to be backstopped by the federal government. In May of last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced more than $34 million in disaster relief for Sound fishermen who suffered poor seasons in 2018 and 2020.
The unnoticed losers
While Alaska and to some extent Russia, which is also heavily into the business of producing pinks, have been pumping out unprecedented numbers of smallish humpies, that make harvest numbers look great on paper, fisheries researchers say there is a downside:
The size of the Pacific’s largest salmon – Chinnooks, or “kings” as Alaskans call them – and the sockeye salmon that were once the backbone of the Canadian salmon-fishing industry – have been steadily shrinking in size due to apparent competition for food in their early years in the ocean.
Pinks are voracious little eating machines that go to sea less than two inches long and in 18 months or so grow to lengths of 20 to 25 inches. As they rapidly grow toward that size, they compete for food with Chinook, sockeye, coho and chum salmon destined to spend two to five years at sea before returning to freshwater to spawn.
“Chinook salmon are the largest and most economically valuable species of Pacific salmon and have experienced the sharpest decline in size over time,” researchers from the University of California-Davis and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in the peer-reviewed Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in mid-December.
University of Washington, NOAA and Alaska Fish and Game researchers publishing in the peer-reviewed Fish and Fisheries in 2018 reported that loss as averaging about 10 percent in length for fish originating in streams from Alaska south to Oregon with even greater declines in average weight, but they failed to link the change to the abundance of pink salmon.
“Negative effects of direct competition with other salmonids are…unlikely to be the driving mechanisms of declining size-at-age among older Chinook salmon,” they observed at that time. “However, indirect effect of increasing abundances of other salmonids on the prey base of older Chinook salmon in the ocean, for instance through impacts on other life-stages of the prey that are not targeted by Chinook salmon or through more complex food web linkages, cannot be ruled out as a potential driver of changes in age-size structure.”
The latest researcher was also unable to identify a direct causal relationship between the declining size of Chinook and the abundance of pinks, but said the evidence shows an undeniable connection between the two events.
“Our results identify three distinct trends in size across the 48 (Chinook) stocks in our study,” they said. “Differences among populations are correlated with ocean distribution, migration timing, and freshwater residence. (And) we provide evidence that trends are driven by interannual variation in certain oceanographic processes and competition with pink salmon.”
For every group of Chinook in their study, they said, there was a negative correlation with the Alaska pink salmon index. “The two northern groups had particularly strong relationships with the Alaska pink salmon index, ” they wrote, “while the southern ocean distribution group had a particularly strong positive correlation with the North Pacific Current bifurcation index.”
They conceded there is considerable variation in shrinkage among various king salmon stocks, but said that across the board “the results are consistent with the hypothesis that interspecific competition with pink salmon affects growth.”
Kenai River salmon were not included in the study, which focused largely on Columbia River hatchery fish because they are marked before release and thus easy to track. But Kenai kings constitute a northern stock, and the shrinkage at age of both early- and late-run kings in a river that once laid claim to producing the world’s biggest Chinook has been dramatic.
The world-record, rod-and-reel caught king was pulled from the Kenai in 1985. It weighed 97-pounds, 4 ounces, and for years after it was caught, with the river then regularly producing kings of 80 to 90 pounds, it was assumed someone would one day land a 100-pound Chinook.
Nobody even talks about the possibility of such a fish anymore. Now a fish over 65 pounds is a rarity and one topping 70 pounds is almost unheard of. Meanwhile, the size of early-run kings has shrunk so much that state and federal managers are having a hard time reaching spawning goals because so many of the returning fish are smaller than the state-defined spawner size of 34 inches or greater.
Shrinking ‘money fish’
While kings might be the dream catch of Alaska anglers both resident and tourist alike, not to mention the pound-for-pound most valuable commercial catch in the 49th state, they are small potatoes in the bigger economic picture given what are now extremely low harvest numbers.
Fewer kings are caught in Alaska’s commercial fisheries these days than in the bad old days of the 1970s when cold North Pacific waters depressed marine productivity resulting in annual commercial catches of all salmon species about a quarter of what they are now.
Because of a radical decrease in Chinook productivity and abundance, which has happened in parallel with the shrinkage in size of the fish, kings now sometimes get the most attention in the commercial fishery for the way they interfere with the harvest of sockeye, the state’s biggest money fish. Hundreds of thousands of harvestable sockeye have in recent years escaped commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet and off the mouth of the Copper River because king numbers were so low the state prohibited gillnetting.
Kings, for better or worse, mix with sockeyes headed back to Alaska spawning grounds, and indiscriminate gillnet fisheries cannot catch sockeyes without snagging and killing kings. Thus the closures. This is one of several harvest problems that have long faced Alaska’s mixed-stock salmon fisheries.
Almost unnoticed in the background of regular fish “wars” that erupt between commercial fishermen wanting to catch the maximum number of sockeye in mixed stock fisheries and non-commercial interests – sport and subsistence fishermen along with some environmental groups – wanting to save the kings has been the shrinking size of sockeye, which takes money out of the pockets of commercial fishermen all around the Gulf of Alaska and now, according to the latest study, in Bristol Bay.
A peer-reviewed study accepted by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, the globe’s oldest scientific academy, fingers increased competition between salmon at sea as a driving factor behind declines in the size of sockeye in the Bay, Alaska’s largest sockeye fishery. It thus joins Gulf sockeye fisheries where sockeye shrinkage in both size and abundance was years ago blamed on competition from pinks.
A peer-reviewed paper in 2019 concluded that “from 2005 to 2015, the approximately 82 million adult pink salmon produced annually from hatcheries were estimated to have reduced the productivity of southern sockeye salmon by 15 percent on average.”
In the Bay, the authors of the new study observed that the “annual variation in size-at-age was largely explained by
competition among Bristol Bay sockeye salmon and interspecific competition with other salmon in the North Pacific Ocean….Our findings point to competition at sea as the main driver of sockeye salmon size declines, and emphasize the trade-off between fish abundance and body size.”
The simple translation is this: The ocean can produce lots and lots of smallish salmon, or it can produce a smaller number of more marketable salmon.
Today’s higher-value markets trade in salmon filets and steaks. Three- or four-pound salmon do not produce steaks, and filets that come from them are pretty pathetic. Even smaller salmon have no place to go but into cans or pouches, a lower-value product, or into fishmeal, an even lower-value product, to be used for dog food, fertilizer, shrimp food or animal feed.
Some of the sockeye shrinkage in the Bay is due to an explosion in sockeye numbers due to climate change increasing the environmental productivity of Southwest Alaska by warming the waters of the lakes in which young sockeye grow before heading to sea, the University of Washington, Alaska Fish and Game and University of Montana authors of the Royal Society paper write.
But the “negative associations of size-at-age,” the add, compounded by “the abundance of pink salmon at sea suggest that both intraspecific and interspecific competition contributes to reduced growth rates.”
While the scientists admit they cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this abundance is the sole driving force behind sockeye shrinkage, they contend the preponderance of the evidence points in that direction, and no one has come up with an alternative hypothesis to explain why salmon that spend years in the ocean keep getting smaller while the abundance of short-lived pinks keeps going up.
Bay sockeye, they add, are lucky to at least be shielded from this competition when they first reach the ocean.
“While competition has strong effects on growth during the second and third year at sea when salmon feed in offshore waters in the Gulf of Alaska, as suggested by our findings, marine survival is largely determined during the first year at sea, when Bristol
Bay sockeye salmon mainly reside in the southeastern Bering Sea,” they wrote.
“Pink and sockeye salmon show high diet overlap, indicating that direct competition for food (at sea) might be causing the negative link between sockeye salmon size and pink salmon abundance. Previous research indicated that competition for food and density-dependent growth effects primarily occur when salmon feed in offshore waters.”
Bristol Bay sockeye get a break unavailable to Gulf of Alaska sockeye stocks because there are no hatcheries in the Bay and the natural production of pink salmon in the region has always been historically low, unlike in other areas around the Gulf where pink salmon production was naturally higher and has been hugely boosted by hatcheries since the 1980s.
Young sockeyes there face competition from pink salmon as soon as they hit the ocean. Bay sockeye get a chance to get their fins under them before facing serious competition.
Chum salmon, another heavily ocean-farmed fish, could also be in the competitive mix, the scientists reported, but in that case “adverse effects of interspecific competition on sockeye salmon body size is difficult to disentangle due to the high correlation between the pink and chum salmon abundance time series.”
The study made no attempt to put a dollar figure on the monetary loss associated with this salmon shrinkage, but quantified a “10 percent decline in mean body mass since the early 1960s, though much of this decline occurred since the early 2000s.”
An unprecedented, record harvest of 60.1 million sockeye in the Bay last summer was valued by Fish Game as worth more than $350 million to commercial fishermen. A 10 percent reduction in body size there would amount to about a $35 million loss to commercial fishermen in the Bay, and the gross losses to the commercial fishing industry in the Bay would only ramp up as the fish increase in value throughout the processing chain.
Millions more would be lost by the reported 15 percent reduction in returns to other major sockeye systems around the Gulf of Alaska, most notably Cook Inlet and the Copper River in Alaska, the Skeena and Fraser rivers in Canada, and the Columbia River of Washington and Oregon which once saw returns of 3 million sockeye per year but is now lucky to receive a tenth of that. Sockeye returning to the Snake River, a major Columbia tributary, were declared an endangered species in 1991 and still teeter on the edge of extinction.
Collectively, the two new studies as to the shrinking size of salmon underline a question scientists Greg Ruggerone and James Irvine posed to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, a multi-nation treaty organization, last year: “Are There Too Many Salmon in the North Pacific Ocean?”
The two scientists described an ocean now overrun with humpies with “overall pink salmon represent(ing) approximately 74 percent of total salmon abundance in 2018-2019. Most pink salmon are of natural origin, but the abundance of hatchery pink salmon during 2005 to 2015 was greater than the abundance of wild chum salmon and approximately equal to the abundance of wild sockeye salmon.
“Total chum and sockeye salmon represented only 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of total salmon abundance in 2018/2019. These values exclude Chinook and coho salmon, whose combined reported commercial catch was 1.5 percent of total salmon catch from the North Pacific during 2018/2019 and approximately 5 percent of total salmon catch, on average, during 1925 to 2020.”
That more than threefold reduction in Chinook and coho salmon since 1925 has come largely at the expense of Canada and the Pacific Northwest where salmon have been hit with a double whammy in the form of freshwater impacts due to human development and marine impacts due to a warming Pacific and the massive increases in salmon production in Japan, Russia and the U.S. due to both hatcheries and a maximum sustained yield (MSY) approach to the management of all northern salmon stocks.