Calls for hatcheries to ‘save’ Yukon salmon
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
Two decades after the last big salmon crash on the Yukon River has come another even bigger with a difference.
Some in the Yukon Territory, Canada, are now suggesting the need for the proverbial magic bullet – a salmon hatchery far up the nearly 2,000-mile-long waterway – to save the fish.
The Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, a significantly shorter waterway famous for its high-volume production of the Chinook salmon Alaskans call kings, is littered with such hatcheries.
Last year, just shy of 275,000 Chinook returned to the river that forms the border of the states of Oregon and Washington before turning north toward its headwaters in Columbia Lake, British Columbia, Canada, nearly 1,500 miles from the seas.
Two-hundred and seventy-five-thousand Chinook would have been a bonanza for Yukon where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported the “drainage-wide run was much lower than the preseason outlook and the worst on record with approximately 45,000 Chinook’‘ passing a sonar counter at Pilot Point, approximately 121 miles upstream from the river’s mouth on the Bering Sea.
But then the far-north watershed, though much bigger than that of the Columbia, has never produced Chinook on a Columbianesque scale.
The average since the start of the new millennium, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data from the Pilot Point counter, is 153,395 Chinook per year, though that has been a great deal of variability.
Since the counter was installed in 1995, returns through 2021 varied from a low of 54,560 in 2000 to a high of 318,088 only three years later in 2003.
A string of very good years followed with more than 200,000 Chinook in 2004, more than 259,000 in 2005 and nearly 229,000 in 2006 before the numbers began creeping downward once again.
The state put its estimate for this year at 48,439, just a bit above that of the Fish and Wildlife Service. That is a massive drop from the 2021 estimate of 124,845, and an even more massive drop from the 219,624 of 2019.
What a difference only a few years can make.
Why exactly Yukon Chinook are in decline in a river draining vast areas of wilderness in Alaska and the Yukon is unclear.
The drainage lacks the obvious problems documented along the Columbia and in the Columbia watershed: massive hydroelectric dams, industrial-scale logging, heavy runoff from agricultural lands, urban development, poor ocean pastures, warming climate and more.
Alaska researchers Kathrine Howard and Vanessa von Biela have theorized that the latter could be a major issue on the Yukon.
“Over the past two decades, parents that experienced warmer water temperatures and lower discharge in the mainstem Yukon River produced fewer juveniles per spawning adult,” they wrote in a paper published in peer-reviewed Global Change Biology in January. “We propose the adult spawner life stage as a critical period regulating population dynamics.”
Others blame the bycatch of Chinook in the commercial trawl fisheries that mine the Bering Sea for pollock.
Earthjustice, an activist law group, went into federal court earlier this month to file a lawsuit on behalf of two tribal organizations – the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents and the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference – who contend the reluctance of the National Marine Fisheries Service to further restrict bycatch in the $383 million pollock trawl fishery has decimated Chinook returns to both the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
“Alaska is facing a historic salmon crisis which is crushing the people and tribes of Western Alaska,” the AVCP said in a statement. “Subsistence fishing in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions of the state has been severely restricted for over a decade while the pollock trawl fishery continues to catch thousands of Chinook and chum salmon as bycatch each year.
“Meanwhile, radical ecosystem changes have negatively affected conditions for Chinook and chum salmon rearing in the ocean. The federal government’s current fisheries management decisions prioritize maximizing groundfish catch over protecting the subsistence rights of Alaska Native peoples who are deeply impacted by those decisions.”
The scientists agree that the environment in which the salmon live has changed, but most dismiss the popular view that the problem is due to the trawlers in the Bering Sea where the salmon spend years of their lives before heading back to the Yukon to spawn.
Howard and von Biela concluded that the returns are bad because of the weak spawning success of adult salmon, and the huge number of young salmon dying in the river or in the nearshore Bering Sea before they become big enough to be caught by trawlers.
“Chinook salmon production patterns are likely unrelated to events that occur later in the marine life such as: bycatch in high seas commercial fisheries, directed Chinook salmon fisheries in marine or estuarine waters, or the predation of marine mammals on larger and older salmon,” they wrote. “Consequently, the life history periods of interest for understanding Yukon River Chinook salmon population dynamics include the spawning adults, egg, fry, and smolt/marine juvenile life stages.”
Water temperatures now sometimes pushing toward 18 degrees Centigrade (near 65 degrees Fahrenheit) are problematic for Yukon Chinook, they wrote , although the lethal temperature for Chinook is considered to be a much higher 26°C (near 79°F), according to studies conducted in Pacific Northwest waters.
But those studies have also concluded temperatures above 13°C diminish spawning success. Some salmon have shown an ability to adjust the timing of their return to spawning grounds to compensate for warming waters, but it is unknown if Yukon salmon can so evolve.
Among the northernmost Chinook populations, with spawning grounds in areas where winter temperatures regularly drop to 50 degrees below zero and colder, these fish have for centuries faced natural-selection pressures favoring adaptation to cold rather than to warmth.
A hugely adaptable species
Still, there is hope this could change. A new study from the Pacific Northwest has underlined the broad and varying adaptability of salmon stocks born in the many spawning streams of major watersheds like that of the Yukon.
“Our analysis revealed that most Chinook populations are declining, with negative trends in escapement (57 of 79) and total run (16 of 23) size,” the study reported. “Trends were most acutely negative for interior spring Chinook in the Fraser, Columbia and Snake Rivers and most populations in California. (But) summer and fall Chinook had mixed trends, with several summer and fall upriver bright populations in the interior Columbia and Fraser exhibiting increases in abundance from the 1990s to 2019.”
Generally, the team of U.S. and Canadian scientists led by William Atlas from the Wild Salmon Center in Portland concluded, the outlook for Lower 48 Chinook was not good, but said their research “also shed light on some of the notable bright spots for Chinook.”
Better fisheries management, they added, might help create even more bright spots.
“Many of our study populations had low escapements (of spawners) from the 1970s to the 1990s when harvest rates in mixed-stock marine fisheries were very high,” they noted. “Although the risks posed by mixed-stock fishery impacts were known during that time, widespread changes in fisheries management were not initiated until the last decades of the 20th century, when several Chinook population units were listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.”
The problems of mixed-stock fisheries in Alaska are well known, though not always addressed. The Yukon is plagued with this problem; the historic commercial fishery in the lower river preys on a mixed stock of Chinook bound for dozens of upriver spawning tributaries.
The Fish and Fisheries study notes over-harvest of Chinook in mixed-stock fisheries remains a significant problem and cautions that hatcheries, despite looking like a cure for weak returns, can actually make that problem worse.
“For example,” the authors wrote, “(Canada’s) Cowichan River fall Chinook fell below their…escapement goal of 6,500 spawners in every year from 1997 to 2015. During this period, fishery managers in Canada made modest reductions in the average harvest rate and changed hatchery practices by reducing the number of hatchery fish released.
“These management changes coupled with local investments in freshwater and estuarine habitat restoration, and improved water management were followed by a dramatic rebuilding among Cowichan River Chinook. Natural-origin spawner abundance has exceeded 6,500 every year since 2016.”
They further underlined their conclusions from their research with the warning that “a rich diversity of Chinook populations and life histories has evolved to fill a variety of niches in freshwater and ocean ecosystems, and these populations continue to evolve in response to natural and anthropogenic drivers. Protecting and rebuilding all these elements of Chinook biodiversity and maintaining the adaptive potential of populations will be essential for their future in the face of a changing climate.”
Salmon hatcheries have been implicated in significant declines in the biodiversity of salmon, leaving some scientists wondering if they don’t sometimes do more harm than good.
“The number of Pacific salmon has declined dramatically. But the loss of genetic diversity may be a bigger problem,” Phillip Levin, leader of the Ecosystems and Climate Team at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and Michael H. Schiewe, the director of salmon science at the Center, warned in an article American Scientist more than two decades ago.
New research, including some done in Alaska in recent years, has only buttressed that conclusion, but hatcheries remain a publicly popular solution to weak salmon returns.
Feelings, nothing but feelings
The substance of what hatcheries could or could not do for the Yukonhas so far played second fiddle to the feelings of people wanting to do something in the fundamental belief that man can improve on anything in nature.
A story by Nathaniel Hertz published in the Northern Journal and the Alaska Beacon early this month and then picked up by Alaska Public Media suggested hatcheries might “stem the steep fish declines on the Yukon River.
“…The dire state of Yukon River salmon populations is prompting new openness to the hatchery idea,” Herz wrote, before quoting Brandy Mayes, the land operations manager at the Whitehorse-based Kwanlin Dun First Nation Government.
“I’ve always said I want a wild river with wild salmon. But I think we’re at a point where we have to have a discussion about, what are we going to do? It’s just to know that we have salmon in our ecosystem, providing nutrients to the land, the trees, the air,” she said.
“There appears to be more openness, at least initially, in Canada, which is higher up on the Yukon and naturally sees lower fish returns than Alaska,” Herz added. “At a January workshop hosted by the First Nations salmon alliance, the Yukon Indigenous group, most participants in an informal survey said they agreed that hatcheries should be a viable proposal to rebuild salmon stocks.”
Nowhere in the story was there any mention of how many salmon might need to be produced at a hatchery to make a difference. Nowhere in the story was there a mention of cost. Nowhere in the story was there a hint of how a hatchery producing any significant number of salmon would complicate the mixed-stock management of the wild salmon now struggling in the Yukon drainage.
Suffice it to say, this story had no real substance to it because Herz didn’t have a clue as to what he was writing about, and no one in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game took his hand to lead him through the problems that one would expect to be associated with a Yukon hatchery because of the agency’s agenda.
It’s hoping to get $50 million from the federal government to study “depleted fish stocks.” As a result, Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang’s comments on Yukon hatcheries were carefully couched though he knows full well the problems a hatchery of any size far upstream in the Yukon would cause.
There is now a hatchery in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, but it was mainly built as a public-relations move by the power company that put a hydroelectric dam on the river. It produces up to 400,000 Chinook salmon fry for release into the Yukon every year, but doesn’t report how many adults make it back.
The latter number was down from 270 in 2021, and far below the 10-year average of 945.
If the Canadian hatchery is getting a return of a tenth of a percent – or about 400 fish per year – it would be doing good.
Since the late 1980s, Alaska’s Fish and Game has been releasing an average of 210,000 Chinook smolts per year at the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Homer and getting back an average of 1,200.
That’s about 0.6 percent, but the program releases smolt into the ocean – not fry into a river nearly 2,000 miles from the ocean. A fry release cuts survival odds about in half from the get-go, and the long journey the young fish must make to reach the sea and the long journey necessary to get back add to the mortality.
Hatcheries can increase salmon numbers, but the Canadians would have to massively expand theirs and add the capability to grow the fish to smolt size if they wanted to increase production.
And all of that costs money. Big money. Take it from a world leader in the hatchery business.
Alaska knows hatcheries
Alaska is these days a huge player in the open-ocean-farming of salmon, which involves taking eggs and sperm from adult salmon in order to hatch and rear fish in hatcheries before releasing them to go to sea.
Because long-lived Chinook are the most costly salmon to produce, the hatcheries accounted for fewer than 70,000, 68,667 to be exact or 0.1 percent of the state’s hatchery production..
And almost a third of these fish came from a state-run hatchery heavily subsidized by the federal government which each year grants Alaska a disproportionate share of the funds collected under the terms of the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act, which imposes a 10 percent excise tax on angling tackle and a 3-percent excise tax on fish finders and electric trolling motors while also collecting import duties on fishing tackle, yachts and pleasure craft and a portion of powered boat fuel tax revenues and small engine fuel taxes.
Of the nearly $425 million in DJ money available to the 50 states – plus the District of Columbia, American Samoa, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – for the present fiscal year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports the maximum payouts of more $21.2 million went to Alaska and Texas.
California, the country’s most populous state, was the only other state to collect more than $20 million. In Alaska, the DJ money helps to fund the state’s two, public, state-run hatcheries.
The state was once big in the hatchery business. It invested about a half billion dollars in a Salmon Resource Development Program in the 1980s and 1990s before concluding hatcheries were too costly to operate.
The state still owns some of the hatcheries it paid to build back then, but the state’s salmon production business was long ago turned over almost wholly to private, non-profit corporations controlled by commercial fishermen.
The corporations fund their hatchery operations largely through the use of what are called “commercial cost recovery” fisheries in the saltwater bays next to their hatcheries.
Canada is a long way from saltwater, and in order to run a cost-recovery fishery big enough to support a hatchery, it would need to move tens of thousands of Chinook upstream through Alaska fisheries for nearly 1,300 miles.
And here’s the rub.
Were the Yukon to suddenly welcome back a whole lot more Chinook, there would be heavy pressure from Alaska fishermen – subsistence, commercial and sport – to harvest some of those fish, and rightly so.
Mixed stock mess
Young salmon hatched in Canada eat their way to sea through the Alaska portion of the river and then fatten in nearshore Alaska coastal waters before finally moving out into the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean.
Alaska can argue it is owed some of the returning adults for helping to feed the young. Negotiating who gets how many of these hatchery fish would be a tricky business.
And it would only get harder the more fish a Canadian hatchery produced because that inherent mixed stock management problem. There is no easy way to separate wild fish from hatchery fish in-river.
Thus any attempt to harvest hatchery fish is destined to catch wild fish as well. This is OK as long as wild runs are capable of supporting the harvest, but easily deteriorates into a situation where weak runs of wild fish are over-fished.
“First, over-harvest of wild stocks in mixed stock fisheries can have a profound impact on survival of wild stocks. When abundant hatchery stocks are targeted for high harvest, less abundant wild stocks cannot withstand the high exploitation rates, resulting in under-escapement of wild fish.
“Second, there are a number of detrimental ecological interactions that can take place between hatchery and wild fish. These can take the form of competition for food and territory, predation by larger hatchery fish preying on smaller wild cohorts, and negative social interactions when large numbers of hatchery fish are released on top of small numbers of wild fish.
“Third, there is a series of genetic risks associated with hatchery rearing.”
And the bigger the river system, the greater and even more complex these problems become as has been long observed and well-reported on the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest.
“The U.S. government promised Native tribes in the Pacific Northwest that they could keep fishing as they’d always done,” i how Oregon Public Broadcasting put it. “But instead of preserving wild salmon, it propped up a failing system of hatcheries. Now, that system is falling apart.”
The hatcheries aren’t the only thing to blame for the decline in the number of Columbia salmon. Hydroelectric dams are in the mix for a variety of reasons, and there are suggestions that at-sea competition for food with Alaska’s now massive salmon production, supported in part by hatcheries, could play a role.
But it is clear that Columbia hatcheries haven’t fixed the problem, and there is no scientific reason to believe hatcheries far upstream on the Yukon in Canada would provide much benefit for that watershed either.
But who wants to hear this? It might hurt the feeling of those who think there’s a magic fix. It’s better and easier to believe man can stabilize the natural variability of nature wherein populations of wildlife oscillate wildly through time and sometimes actually disappear.