Humpies invade North America’s East Coast
First the pink salmon, the smallest and shortest-lived of the species, took over the Pacific Ocean, swarming with the help of Alaska ocean ranching until they came to represent 74 percent of the biomass of all six species in that vast expanse of blue water.
Then, with the help of Russian salmon ranchers, they gained a foothold in the Barents Sea of Northern Europe before eventually staging an invasion of Norwegian waters. Forays into streams in Scotland would follow and then Iceland and Greenland.
Now, the Canadians believe, the Russian pinks – which trace their roots back to eggs transplanted from parents caught on the western side of the Bering Sea adjacent to Alaska – have reached the eastern shore of that nation.
There is a remote possibility these salmon came through the Northwest Passage to Newfoundland and Labrador, but it has been largely dismissed as unlikely despite the pink explosion in the Bering Sea pushing north into the Arctic Ocean.
Canadian biologists report pinks found as far east as Cambridge Bay in western Nunavut. Cambridge Bay is almost due north of the Montana-North Dakota border in the U.S., putting it near halfway through the Northwest Passage.
But given the Norway to Iceland to Greenland advance of Russian pinks in recent years, the Canadians think it far more likely their humpies came from the east.
Island hopping campaign
“…It makes much more sense that this is coming across the Atlantic because we’re seeing them … in Iceland and in Greenland and now coming down through Labrador,” Ian Bradbury, a research biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada told Canada’s National Observer, which offered a mixed view on the arrival of a tasty invasive species.
Views on which fish are “invasive species” and which are valuable commercially or favored in sport catches have varied greatly over the year. From 1959 through 1966, the Canadians themselves tried to start an artificial run of pinks at North Harbor River in Newfoundland using eggs from pinks in British Columbia.
The project failed.
“The reasons for the failure of the transplant are not certain, but possibilities include the following: predation on the fry by brook trout and possibly eels in North Harbour Pond and estuary; unfavorable surface temperatures in the river during the fry run; predation by herring on fry in St. Mary’s Bay; year-class failure of the even-year stocks that were introduced; unsuitability of the donor stocks with respect to migration patterns and homing behavior; inadequate numbers of eggs were transplanted to produce populations required to maintain runs in anything below optimum environmental conditions,” researchers wrote after the program was shut down.
Decades of efforts to create Atlantic salmon runs in the Pacific Ocean have met with similar fates though some still worry that those salmon could escape British Columbia fish farms and establish themselves in streams there or in Alaska to the north.
The Great Lakes stocking projects, which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dubbed a “giant science experiment,” has even produced its own unique hybrid – the pinook, a cross between a pink salmon and a king salmon.
A Minnesota angler last summer caught the Wisconsin state record pinook. The 12.46 pounder was pulled from Lake Michigan east of Algoma in August.
“…When we netted this one we thought, holy cow, it had a mottled back like a king, and a hump on it and the start of a hook jaw, so I thought it might be a pink,” Mark Sondreal from Minneapolis told the Milwaukee Journal. “But we didn’t really know.”
Chinook and coho are the most common salmon species in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, where pinks have yet to explode. But there are pinks and Atlantic salmon as well along with brook, rainbow and brown trout which are close relatives.
The brown trout originally came to this country from Europe. Fish stocking has a long and colorful history in the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got into the business in 1871 and say it now raised “approximately 73 fish species like walleye, pallid sturgeon, brown trout, and Atlantic salmon.”
What is even better, not to mention a whole lot cheaper, is if the fish will raise themselves, which has the Canadians debating whether the newly arrived humpies are a blessing or a curse.
Is a salmon a salmon?
On the one hand, the fish could create a new fishery. On the other, they could put even more pressure on the Atlantic salmon native to the East Coast. Those fish are now in more trouble than Alaska’s struggling king salmon.
Norwegian “scientists are currently scrambling to investigate the potential effects of large pink salmon populations on cherished native Atlantic salmon, but disease transmission and competition for space and food (including redd superimposition), are among the chief concerns for fisheries managers and conservationists,” FishBio reported in December, adding that the Scandinavian nation has already reached the point where the sheer abundance of pinks complicates any research.
The problem in “evaluating the pinks’ impact is the lack of rivers without pink salmon for comparison, as just about every river in northern Norway now boasts a sizable run, particularly in odd years,” the website reported. “While it may turn out that differences in run timing and overall life history minimize the pink salmon’s actual impact on Atlantic salmon, data to support this are currently lacking.
“Taking a precautionary approach, efforts are underway in many watersheds to drastically reduce the number of pink salmon spawners by setting traps and gillnets during their migration period.”
The Norwegian government is also experimenting with weiring off rivers and streams which allows for the selective passage of native fish while holding pinks for removal.
Alaska, meanwhile, just keeps dumping more pinks in the ocean. The Valdez Fisheries Development Association, one of the private entities running industrial-scale pink salmon production hatcheries that make Alaska a world leader in farming the sea, last month announced that “the Solomon Gulch Hatchery crew finished outmigration of an estimated 262 million pink salmon fry on Friday, April 21st.
“Thanks to the excellent care of the juvenile salmon by hatchery staff over the winter, VFDA expects to have its largest release of salmon ever, later in May.”