The problem with agendas
With Alaska reporting yet another season in which the harvest of salmon topped 200 million fish, the Associated Press has somehow concluded “climate change” is plaguing the state’s fisheries.
What kind of plague would this be? A plague of riches?
Not once in the first 100 years of the Alaska commercial fishing industry did the harvest come anywhere close to 200 million salmon.
When the harvest of Bristol Bay sockeye hit 37.1 million in 1983 – breaking the harvest record of 28.1 million set only two years earlier – the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported that the catch “accounted for 31 percent of the statewide commercial catch and helped to make 1983 the largest Alaska salmon catch since records were first maintained in the late 1800s.”
The total statewide harvest that year? Just shy of 128 million salmon of all species, according to agency data.
“Marissa Wilson, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, noted that the decline in the number of people working coincides with the shrinking of fisheries in general as populations of fish decline and move,” the AP’s Joshua A. Bickel reported in this story claiming a plague.
If Wilson actually said this, she should be embarrassed. There are some fisheries in the state in decline, and some species of salmon in decline, but in general, Alaska fisheries have never been healthier.
Whether Wilson said what she is claimed to have said, who knows? Bickel’s biography describes him as a “Cincinnati-based visual journalist for The Associated Press’ global climate and environment team” which the AP last year announced would focus “on the profound and varied impacts of climate change on society in areas such as food, agriculture, migration, housing and urban planning, disaster response, the economy and culture.”
Quadriviam says on its website that “urgent action” is needed on climate change, that it “recognize(s) that communications around this threat have been politicized and we are working with organizations that are capable of reaching a majority of the public, regardless of country or political tribe.”
And Rockefeller, according to its website, is a “philanthropic foundation that promotes the well-being of humanity by finding and scaling solutions to advance opportunity and reverse the climate crisis.”
These are noble and commendable goals, and the planet is getting warmer. Looking for solutions to turn down the heat, not to mention weaning the planet from non-renewable fossil fuels in the process, is a good thing.
But does the end here justify the means, which can’t really be described with any other word than lying?
AP, in this case, pretty clearly delivered what its sponsors wanted – climate change harm to Alaska fisheries – and the truth be damned because the truth is that Alaska’s most valuable fisheries aren’t plagued by climate change.
At least not year.
Bristol Bay sockeye returns can only be accurately described as exploding, and even fisheries some Alaskans might now think of as struggling a bit, such as the sockeye fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet and off the mouth of the Copper River, are producing at significantly higher levels than they did in what some seem to believe were the good old days of colder Gulf of Alaska waters.
That’s about 65 percent of this year’s commercial catch of 1.55 million with the commercial setnet fishery closed to protect a weak run of king salmon, and commercial fishermen madly whining that the escape of 2.4 million late-run sockeye into the Kenai River – almost a million more than the in-river goal – will lead to dreaded over-escapement.
The story is much the same for the fabled Copper where the sockeye salmon harvest averaged approximately 527,000 per year for the 24 years from 1950 to 1973, according to Fish and Game data. The reported, preliminary commercial catch there this year is 850,000 with a reported 992,000 – again something close to twice the management goal of 584,000 – escaping into the river.
Scientists contend there is now evidence indicating sockeye runs to both of these fisheries would have been even bigger if not for the explosion in pink salmon numbers in the new millennium, but despite that the runs remain significantly larger than in the past.
And as for those pinks, the fish Alaskans usually call humpies?
The North Pacific Ocean is now overflowing with them. They have boosted total salmon numbers to a level never seen in recorded history.
Fish and Game’s preliminary harvest report has the statewide catch of humpies this year at just shy of 148 million. There were more pinks caught this year than the average harvest of all species of Alaska salmon in the 1980s when state salmon managers were bragging of an “average commercial harvest level in the 1980s (that) increased to 122 million salmon, a twofold increase over the prior period.
“Budget support for the commercial salmon management program peaked in the 1980s and (the) payoff from better management, improved stock assessment tools, and prior investments in the Alaska salmon hatchery program combined to result in another significant increase in sustained harvest levels.”
Despite that fading “budget support,” harvests just kept going up through the 1990s and topped the 200 million fish mark for the first time in 1995.
Since then, including this year, the harvest has gone over 200 million eight times, according to state data, which would put these harvests at eight times more than at any time in the history of the state or territory prior to 1995 if not for the fact that in mathematics anything times zero still equals zero.
Suffice to say, no matter how one cooks the numbers, there is no way to come up with climate change having been a plague on Alaska’s most valuable in-state fishery, the salmon fishery, and there are no indications it has been a plague on the state’s biggest offshore fishery either.
That would be the pollock fishery where the average annual harvest has fluctuated around 2.6 billion pounds per year since 1980. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the ultimate authority over the management of Alaska’s offshore fisheries, reported a 2021 harvest of 3.2 billion pounds and described the fishery as “often considered one of the best-managed fisheries in the world.”
It could happen
There are fears the pollock fishery could someday collapse if ocean waters warm too much, and there are similar fears for some salmon species, which appear to be already suffering losses in productivity in their southern range due to a combination of ocean warming and that explosion of pink salmon.
How much of that loss is due to the warming ocean and how much is due to the humpy explosion is hard to say, according to state researchers who have spent decades studying coho salmon in Southeast Alaska.
But south of there, Canadian and lower 48 researchers concluded that pink salmon increases on the order of 200 million to 400 million pink salmon led to a 39 percent reduction in the productivity of sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River of British Columbia, Canada.
One can make a case that Canadian and Pacific Northwest salmon are plagued by climate change and pink salmon, but the fish are not plagued by climate change in Alaska, at least not yet, though they are afflicted by pinks which appear to have a competitive advantage in warmer waters and are significantly boosed in number by Alaska’s industrial-scale farming of the ocean through the use of hatchery salmon releases.
Overall, for Alaska salmon to date, global warming has been good, and even for the Alaska salmon species that might be suffering a bit from warming – that being Chinook – the change still falls far short of a plague.
That the AP would do what it did is understandable. When people are handing you money, you don’t want to bite them in the hand.
How the state’s largest newspaper could be unaware of the reality of Alaska fisheries and run with a headline suggesting they are plagued by climate change is somewhat more baffling.
How could anyone paying even the slightest attention to what was happening in the state this summer miss the brouhaha over salmon prices crashing because Alaska fishermen are now catching more salmon than Alaska processors can sell?
Low prices were the talk of the town in every fishing port in the state.
Granted, the ADN had to turn to Nat Herz of the Northern Journal – “Alaska salmon fishermen fume over low prices, but processors say they’re hurting too” – and the staff of KDLG public radio in Dillingham – “Bristol Bay fishermen protest low base price, lack of transparency” – to report the story, but you would hope someone at the newspaper would have paid enough attention to these stories to avoid running a headline on the AP story that only be described as “misinformation.”
But when agendas dominate thinking this is what tends to happen, and then journalists wonder why their credibility is sinking like a stone.
This AP story is representative of a plague all right; it’s just not the plague the AP reported.