Shrinking salmon

Young Chinook salmon/IDFG

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.

As a result, hatchery employees now have jobs that, on average, pay them about twice what the average Alaska worker earns, according to a study conducted for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. 

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.

 A 36-inch king generally weighs less than 20 pounds.

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.








21 replies »

  1. Thanks Craig-

    In the 1984, when I first stated fishing in Prince William Sound, there were no hatchery fish-just the wild fish, and the wild chance you might make a payday.

    It is not the same now as it was then.

    I am not an “ocean rancher”. I’ll catch my fish on chance, not place my boat in the hatchery terminal harvest area to catch domesticated hatchery-raised fish. It’s just me-I would rather make my money harvesting a hundred wild salmon than go to a human-made facility and “harvest” thousands of domesticated salmon.

    It’s more meaningful for me as a fisher to take my chances, and more rewarding as a self-employed businessman to make my own coin, by my own devices. Plus, I am a direct-marketer-I sell my Copper River fish direct-my customers won’t buy hatchery fish.

    How many hatchery fish can the ‘feed-lot’- what the hatcheries consider the Gulf of Alaska to be – handle? Ever heard about the ecological term “carrying-capacity”? It is not reasonable or logical in any layperson’s sense to think there is no upper limit of hatchery fish that the North Pacific can support, with all the wild fish and animals already there.

    There is overwhelming evidence out there that hatchery fish are outcompeting wild stocks-all you have to do is just look for it. How many rows of corn can you plant in a 1 acre plot? How many potatoes can you grow in one 4’x8′ raised bed? Hatchery fish are threatening the North Pacific ecosystem and the wild salmon that I fish for.

    Ironically, judging by the amount of flags out there on the fishing grounds, there are more than a few MAGA anti-socialists out there in the Sound “ocean-ranching”. It is baffling to me that “ocean ranchers” can’t seem to see that the State-mandated hatchery program that they participate in (operated by State-approved non-profits using nomenclature like “common property fish”), is the very definition of socialism.

    I personally am not against socialism- I appreciate public schools, roads, electric grids, harbors, airstrips, Alaska Airlines subsidies (so we can have air service where I live), social security, Medicare, Oil PFD, etc.
    But the Alaska mandated hatchery program is a travesty of a socialist program. It is leaky, unsustainable, and inefficient. It allows people from out of state to come here, profit from the state-grown fish, then blithely hop on a plane and take their “hard-earned” Alaskan socialist-generated cash out of state!

    And the elephant in the room of course is that hatcheries are putting the entire North Pacific ecosystem at risk, in addition to affecting the wild-catch only, non-“ocean ranching” fishers like myself (gillnetter on Copper River Flats), and the people who value natural, fully-functioning ecosystems and born-in-the wild, raised-in-the wild fish.

    In my mind, the hatchery-industrial complex, with their billions and billions of pen-raised fry being dumped into the ocean every season, are as much a threat to wild ecosystems and wild fish as the fish farming industry is, with their leaky net-pens, antibiotics, and hormones.

    How would the MAGA anti-socialists react if they learned, for instance, that hypothetically, the state of Iowa were to mandate that non-profits grow corn for a select group of poor-impoverished people, so that those people could come into the fields and harvest the corn as they like, and then bring that harvest to market, and sell it for whatever price they like? I predict the MAGA anti-socialists would go ape-shit.

    How loud would the anti-socialists cry if the oyster farmers and kelp farmers in Prince William Sound rallied to have state mandated non-profits grow the oysters and kelp for them, construct and maintain the barrier nets, procure and plant the spat, and keep the predators at bay – so that years later, the “ocean rancher oyster/kelp harvesters” can leisurely motor over from Cordova, lean over the rail and cherry pick the oysters and kelp, bring it to market, and sell it for whatever they like?

    Would it be ok for the State of Alaska to grow trees in SE Alaska for poor and impoverished “tree ranchers” so that they could go out into the forest and cut down as many trees as they like, and bring them to market?
    Would any PWS Seiner willingly go out and catch fish, then return to port and open their holds for poor-impoverished people in town to come on-board and gather “their” fish and walk-off and sell them on the open market? I think not, but that is exactly the socialist-construct that the present-day hatchery ocean ranchers are a part of.

    Would it be ok if the State, acting on the ‘success’ of the oil PFD, constructed a fish PFD, where all state citizens share in the profit of the commercial fishing industry?

    Ocean ranching is a fake job-its socialism. The hatchery industrial complex would just as soon rather not have to pay “ocean ranchers” to bring their fish to market when amazingly, the hatchery fish return to the hatchery all by their lonesome.

    I think socialism is good if it is well-thought out with no adverse effects to others groups or resources, and not a leaky, inefficient construct bleeding Alaska state generated monies to people from out of the state, and destroying on a global-scale an entire biological ecosystem at the same time.

    If the Alaska state run hatchery program is NOT socialism, then why can’t hatcheries have their own processing facilities and why can’t seafood processors like Trident have their own hatcheries? Would that not be the definition of capitalism?

    Ocean ranching is bad for socialism-it is not sustainable and it negatively affects others. Stop risking the devastation of the North Pacific ecosystem and the rampant uncontrolled farming of low value, poor tasting salmon that only the hatchery industrial complex can produce and sustain.

    When all the wild fish are gone, there will be only the hatchery industrial complex and complicit “ocean ranchers” remaining-the rest of us will be in Iowa to “harvest” state-grown corn…or maybe the state will pump crude oil for us to put in barrels to sell on the open market.

    • David: You would think that it would dawn on most Alaskans what is going on when the hatcheries talk about raising salmon to the “optimum size” before release. Why this “optimum size?”

      To increase survival, of course. And over what would the hatcheries be increasing survival?

      Over other salmon, of course. And thus primarily wild salmon.

      Few, however, seem to get it. The big disconnect, I believe, is in the idea that the ocean is somehow near unlimited in its carrying capacity because there is so much ocean out there. The problem is that the natural world beneath the surface is – in the ocean as on the land – comprised of different habitats – some good, some bad and some in between.

      There is no reason to believe the ocean has a carrying capacity in excess of its maximum carrying capacity as a natural system, and we seem to have reached that limit.

  2. Lots of factors are responsible for the dismal runs of king salmon all along our southern coast. It will be interesting and very revealing to see which of the giant commercial fishing sectors will be the first to bite the bullet in the necessary shutdown of man’s heavy-handed interference with the natural cycles of abundance. Currently, the US, Russia and Japan release billions of chum and pink salmon smolt in terminal sites all along the North Pacific, with reckless disregard for the carrying capacity of the ocean. That this may be a major factor in the decreasing size and abundance of wild salmon should be a no-brainer. The time for action is now. Contact your representative in Washington, DC and let them know how unhappy you are with our fishery managers.

  3. Over gazing is the problem Nuka bay had good red runs. Till the sound dumped billions of pinks on us they grow. 500′ percent inthe last 4 months or so before reaching their stream eating every thing they can get big pink years meanless the next year lessred s less chums less silvers less bait fish. Less crabs less birds don’t take a Washington fish school grad to figure it out yet are hatchery driven board of fish can’t figure it out come on money talks there jobs on the line here hatchery jobs lower cook inlet ciaa doesn’t do shit to help the situation most if not all fish go to cost recovery leaving on small group to catch cost recovery evey year Resserection bay reds used to 100 percent for fisherman now it’s all cost recovery for one special group as are most fish that tutka hatchery produced as well as those few other projects now that ciaa has taken over less fish more bullshit from those hatchery s on ciaa got 100 of redds in Resserection bay no fishing for chum or pinks occures ever also due to real bad fish an game. Miss management. Of the whole of the Lower Cook inlet

  4. I thought I was done with this thread, but I just have to respond to your last remarks about me “getting my shit together” and ” not liking anglers”.
    For your information, I guided sportfishermen on interior rivers and lakes in the 70’s and early 80’s. And as recently as 2021 purchased and went on a sockeye charter on the west side of cook inlet. I had hoped to book a kachemak king charter for myself and guests in Dec.22, but weather and scheduling conflicts prevented that. Now if you had said I “don’t like the p.u.fishery,” I like many others in kenai, soldotna and kasilof, you would be correct.
    You say I missed the best argument that some of the commercial harvest was susitna kings. Well, once again you are incorrect. I pointed out that comparing the entire uci commercial harvest to the sport harvest of one river system was like comparing apples and oranges.
    We know the trawlers have an impact on the chinooks. I often wonder if a significant number of chinook caught in the winter troll fisheries (both commercial and sport) may be kenai kings.
    I too share concerns about the shrinking size of our salmon and that increased competition in the ocean from hatchery fish may be a concern.
    I seem to remember reading that outgoing smolt in the kenai were reported as smaller than in recent history, and it was theorized that too many fry in the glaciated lakes reduced feed, causing slower growth. Of course this couldn’t be true,because overescapement of course is a myth, unless we are talking about the ocean😊

    • Over-escapement inriver is certainly a possibility, but it is a.) self-correcting; and b.) generally well moderated by harvest throughout the range of the Pacific salmon at this time. The over-escapement was, however, huge in Bristol Bay last year. We’ll see what happens.

      Competition might well produce smaller fry. So too changing winter weather or water conditions. Smaller fry, however, doesn’t always translate into lower ocean survival.

      Your guiding anglers in meaningless. I’ve known plenty of guides who basically despised the majority of their clients. Maybe you like them. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you tell the truth. Maybe you don’t. I don’t know.

      I do agree with you there are many on the Kenai who dislike the PU fishery, or more correctly dislike the PU fishery unless they are in it doing the fishing. I’m surprised some of them haven’t blown the bridges on the Sterling Highway, but then again I guess that would prevent them from driving to Anchorage when they need something they can’t get on the KP.

      Most of the winter troll catch in the commercial fishery is Canadian and PNW Chinook. That is well documented. You’d know this if you studied more instead of spending your time posting comments here.

      The winter sport catch in Cook Inlet would appear to contain a fair percentage of Outside fish as well. When the state genetically tested those fish it found almost all of them came from Outside Cook Inlet, but didn’t bother to further define the areas of origin. Still, given the significant number of fin-clipped fish that show up in the catch and the results of the coded-wire tags recovered, the largest portion of those fish would appear to come from British Columbia, followed by Washington and Oregon.

      We like to rip off other people’s fish in both our commercial and sport fisheries. We are certainly entitled to some share, too, given they are feeding in our waters. And our harvest might be doing less damage than some of the other things we do. When all those little hatchery fish are fattened up in net pens just like the one that house farmed fish to get themto the “optimum size” for release, what do you think that sizing means?

      It couldn’t possibly be that we’re trying to get our fish to the optimum size so they can out-compete their wild cousins in the ocean, could it?

      And lastly, you still don’t get it on the numbers. Apples and oranges are different fruit. There is no difference between dead Chinook in the sport fishery and dead Chinook in the commercial fishery. They’re all dead. So we’re doing a straight-up comparison of dead fish if we’re talking about “decimating” anything. And in that discussion – if there was any decimation – the big commercial catch was as “bad” as the big sport catch.

      The numbers, I would add for those unfamiliar with the data, don’t indicate decimation. Escapements were met despite big catches by everybody. But you made a claim to decimation anyway. Apparently you know something the scientists don’t or you don’t care about the data.

      That’s the great thing about this country; you’re entitled to believe what you want to believe. But don’t be spreading nonsense here. If as you claim, the Kenai run was “decimated” by anglers, there is no doubt commercial fishermen played just as big or a bigger role. But I’m still waiting for you to explain how this decimation took place with spawning goals being met. Is it your contention the bios set those goals too low?

      • Craig,
        My comment about smaller smolt size was not referring to ocean survival, though that certainly may be a factor, but was suggesting it may be a factor in “shrinking salmon”, the subject of this thread .
        Your comment that you know plenty of guides that despise their clients, well I can assure you I was not of that ilk. I only guided sport fishermen for a few years, but guided hunters here in Ak. for 40 years, and I can assure that any guide that “despised his clients”, would not be in business very long.
        Then again, perhaps you
        may not be truthful when you state you”know plenty of guides who basically despised the majority of their clients”. Maybe YOU tell the truth, maybe you don’t, I don’t know.
        Yes, I was over the top when I stated the 400+ guide fleet decimated the kenai king run, but they certainly contributed to the decreased returns.
        And YOU are the one that still doesn’t get it. Comparing uci total commercial chinook harvest to sport harvest in one river system is misleading at best.
        This discussion could go on and on,it would be like wiping your ass on a wagon wheel- there would be no end to it.
        I should know better, a limberdikd old fisherman bantying words with a professional journalist with decades of experience has little chance in a debate. However,I have a fault- I am passionate about the fish and wildlife of this great state.
        One last note- suggesting that one of your readers may no be truthful and spends too much time on your site sems counterproductive too me 😉

      • Totally counterproductive, Gunner, but I believe the truth matters. That has sometimes been a personal problem, but it is what it is.

        I happily accept your admission on devastation being over the top, but I still see no indication harvests here – sport or commercial – contributed much, if anything to the decline. ADF&G has done a good job of seeing to it that adequate numbers of spawners get into the river, but we haven’t been getting back the returns we once got.

        Could it be that lack of guide boats stirring the water since the in-river fishery went to hell? Just kidding, but the point is that doesn’t seem to be an in-river problem. All indications are it’s in the ocean, especially given that the Kenai isn’t alone in facing a Chinook crash. The phenomenon is pretty much coast wide.

        As for guides, I will give you the late George Pollard down your way, a man I talked to many times over the years, a former master guide who became a rabid anti-hunter. When we had a long talk about that one time, he told me I’d probably be an anti-hunter too if I’d had to “put up with” all the clients he put up with over the years. He wasn’t the first guide I heard say this. There have been plenty.

      • George was a good friend of mine,and I hold him in the highest regard. One season late in his life, shared a bear camp with him. Frequently met with him for lunch after my season was over to share hunting stories. I never once heard him say anything degrading about clients or hunting, but if you say so.
        Anyway,as you suggested, I have spent too much time on this.

      • I certainly got a different version, Gunner. In my discussions with him, he largely reflected the view that most hunters were scum and guided hunters especially so. But he was old by then. Maybe age had done something to his brain. It happens.

        That said, I’ve known plenty of younger guides who didn’t much like many or most of their clients, and many older guides who expressed relief that they had been in the business long enough that they’d been able to whittle their list of clients down to repeat customers they’d found to be good company.

        You’re a lucky man, in my opinion, if you’d had nothing but great clients.

  5. Craig, thanks for the great summary. Your response to Gunnar above reads like so many of the staff reports I have listened to or given over the past 15 years or so because it is true, simple as that. 2023 is not likely to be good year for chinook abundance in Alaskan waters. It might be too late to rein in the hatcheries in any meaningful way today but as the case linking pink abundance to declines in other species builds that day may come. Never-the-less in the here and now, managers must be allowed to make the fishery closures necessary to assure adequate numbers of chinook reach the spawning grounds even in those systems like the Copper River, Kenai River and Nushagak River where intensive mixed stock fisheries exist. Thanks again for your good work.

  6. Do you think it may be time for the Alaska legislature to rein in Hatcheries in PWS?
    Or is the commercial fisheries lobby in Juneau too strong to even suggest such an effort for the sake of conservation.
    But then maybe it’s already too late and the damage is done.

    • Never too late, but the longer we wait, the longer it will take for the wild stocks to recover. Like it or not, fish farming is in our future – RAS or pens. PWS is the best place to start, followed closely by Cook Inlet and the YK. Save BB for last and then dig Pebble. Cheers –

      • You are aware the Cook Inlet Regional Aquaculture Association is already pen-rearing salmon, right?

        But, of course, CIAA isn’t “farming” them. It’s just getting them big enough to produce a slight increase in survival among the majority about to be eaten by predators when they’re turned out onto the pasture of that big ocean ranch. It’s sort of like how the Cowboys in the old west used to fatten up the calves so they wouldn’t all get eaten by the wolves after they were turned loose.

    • Doubtful,Rod. When it was apparent that the kenai river guides were decimating the king run on the kenai, particularly with their targeting the big hens,the legislature and other agencies chose to turn a blind eye to the problem by not limiting the unlimited growth of the industry, even when it was supported by both local sport fishermen, commercial fisherman and many in the guide industry itself.

      • Decimated is a big word, Gunner. Everyone was hammering kings in those years. The commercial fishery harvested 39,000 in 1986, 40,000 the next year, and 29,000 in 1988. The total run size – escapement plus commercial, sport and subsistence harvests – is smaller than that now.

        The sport fishery never came close to those numbers. The harvest there peaked at under 20,000 fish, though the fishing effort skyrocketed. About half of it was guide driven. The other half was a lot of ordinary Alaskans and tourists wanting to get in on what was pretty phenomenal fishing.

        It was never going to stay that good. Salmon runs always go up and down and that was a peak. Your suggestion the the fish were over harvested is a popular myth. They might actually have been underharvested. There were a lot of surplus kings on the spawning beds in those years when everyone was taking advantage of phenomenal ocean survival.

        And then it ended.

        Now we’re sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum vis-a-vis ocean survival and everything pretty much looks like shit. You can’t really blame fishermen, commercial or sport; or the managers or even the Legislature. It is what it is. You might be able to put a little blame on hatcheries for adding a lot of competition for food in the form of a billion or so hungry little mouths at sea, but that’s likely only a part of what has happened.

        The ocean, for whatever reason, clearly isn’t as friendly to Kenai Chinook now as it was back in those golden years.

      • Craig,
        Your post may just be a perfect example of “liars figure and figures lie”. Please correct me if I am incorrect, but I believe the numbers you are using for Chinook harvest by the commercial fleet are for all of upper cook inlet, while the sport harvest numbers are for kenai river only.

      • Yes and no. There should be some fish added to the sport number for Chinook harvests in the Susitna River system, but as you well know a large portion of that harvest takes place before the commercial fishing season opens in the Inlet.

        The linked reports attempted to compare Kenai numbers so I’m not sure they include ALL Cook Inlet commercial Chinook harvest. I’m not sure “Northern District” numbers are in that commercial catch, and I’m not going to the trouble of going back to look and spend more time on this exercise.

        There were about 20,000 sport-caught salmon in the Su drainage in 1989. Figure about 80 percent of those were caught before the commercial season opened, so we’re looking about another 4,000 sport-caught fish we could add to the numbers in question. Then we get 40,000 commercial and 24,000 sport.

        But it’s all irrelevant to the point being made that both fisheries were hammering kings in those years of bounty. If your argument is, as it seems to be, that 20,000 caught with rod and real in the Kenai was “too many” then, I guess, 24,000 caught Cook Inlet wide would be really too many, and 40,000 snagged in gillnets would be really, really too many.

        Unless, of course, everyone was involved in simply cropping off salmon surplus to spawning needs, and then it wouldn’t be too many by anybody. Then all we’d be talking about is who got what and the answer to that would be that a relative handful of commercial fishermen got the most of the pie and the rest was split between a shit ton of anglers.

      • Apples and oranges, Craig. You are leaving out the kasilof inriver harvest,and the saltwater troll harvest. There are probably others. I am just saying that comparing the total uci commercial chinook harvest to the sport harvest in only one river is misleading.

      • Explain to me again how the in-river catch in the Kasilof, or for that matter, the Susitna drainage “decimated” Kenai kings, which was where this discussion started.

        Clearly the sport troll harvest should be in the mix. You have a good point there. Some significant percentage of that catch is Kenai fish. And you missed the best argument for the commercial fishery in that some percentage of the UCI commercial catch was Susitna kings, which would require a reduction in the catch of Kenai fish by some number though not by much.

        But no matter how you work the numbers, given the number of kings already in-river in all the rivers other than the Kenai when the UCI fishery opens, the UCI commercial catch can’t be worked down to the level of the rod-and-reel catch or the sport catch driven up the level of the commercial catch.

        And even if the two numbers were to get close, nothing would change as regards your accusation. A comparative handful of commercial fishermen would still be equally guilty of, in your words, “decimating the kng run on the Kenai” in those banner years if, of course, that is what happened.

        There is, unfortunately, one big problem with that “if.” Escapement goals were met in those years, and it’s hard to accuse anyone of “decimating” anything when those goals are met. I get it you don’t like anglers, but good Lord man, get your shit together.

        You’re just making yourself look silly when you accuse anyone – commercial, sport, subsistence or personal use fishermen – of decimating salmon runs in years when escapement goals are met. The whole idea of escapement goals is to ensure production, and any catch in excess of those goals is just gravy for fishermen – sport, commercial, subsistence, whatever.

        If you want to have a discussion about allocation, which is whole different issue, I’m happy to have that discussion. But that isn’t what this discussion was about.

Leave a Reply