Fairbanks group wants hatchery rollback
With ever more attention turning to the question of how much the boom in pink salmon in the North Pacific Ocean is harming more valuable salmon, the Alaska Board of Fisheries is being asked to force the managers of the state’s industrial-scale hatcheries to keep a promise made at the start of the new millennium.
Claiming that the farmers of the sea have created “an over-production of hatchery pink salmon that threatens wild Alaska stocks,” the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee has petitioned the Board to “reduce hatchery production to 25 percent of the year 2000 production as promised in 2000.”
Alaska hatcheries were at that time pumping nearly 1.48 billion salmon fry per year into the ocean – more than double the number of fry released from all of the hatcheries in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California plus all of the hatcheries of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, Canada, according to numbers compiled by Alaska economist Gunnar Knapp in 2000.
Releases from hatcheries outside of Alaska haven’t increased much since then, but Alaska releases have grown to 1.89 billion as of 2022, a 28 percent increase rather than a 25 percent decrease from 2000, according to the Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report 2022 from the state Department of Fish and Game.
More than a billion of the little salmon released last year were pinks, according to the report. Releases of pinks – the smallest and least valuable of Pacific salmon but the cheapest and easiest to ranch on the ocean pastures – are now close to the 1.1 billion hatchery fish of all species that would have been released if the year 2000 promise had been kept.
At the time the promise is alleged to have been made, an Associated Press story reported that “representatives of Western Alaska wild chum fishermen wanted the Board to reduce hatchery output, saying the hatcheries have glutted both the market and the ocean ecosystem. As a result, they argued, demand for Western chums has dropped. In addition, they fear the wild fish might be losing a battle in the ocean for food with hatchery fish, resulting in the recent poor chum returns to Western Alaska rivers.
“Gov. Tony Knowles, who has declared salmon disasters for Western Alaska in three of the last four years, had asked the Board to possibly ‘stop or reduce’ hatchery production.”
With Knowles, one of Alaska’s more conservation-minded governors making noises about stopping hatchery production, the Fairbanks group says in its petition that “hatchery management met with the governor and proffered that if the Board would not take up the proposal (to curtail production) they would reduce their production by 25 percent. The (subsequent) Board meeting lasted 26 days, 10-16 hours a day, accepting the promise from the hatchery managers in the interest of time.”
Warnings that hatchery salmon were crowding out wild salmon in the Pacific were widely dismissed as speculation at the start of the new millennium, but the evidence to support the theory has increased year by year ever since.
The latest, peer-reviewed study concluded that “the evidence is consistent and strong that pink salmon can exert competitive dominance for common-pool prey resources shared by four forage fish species, all five species of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout, and 11 species of seabirds.
“It further indicates that pink salmon can have a strong influence on ecosystem structure and function by, for example, initiating pelagic trophic cascades.”
Other studies have concluded those “influences on ecosystem structure” have reduced both the number of Gulf of Alaska sockeye and coho salmon and their size, and appear to have played a role in the steady declines in size and abundance of Chinook salmon, the largest and most valuable of the species and the salmon commonly called “king” in Alsaka where it is the state fish.
Though research has found that hatchery fish cannot match the capabilities of wild fish for long-term survival in the natural world, the lengths to which hatchery operators have gone to increase “survival rates” for their fish can give those same hatchery salmon better odds for a one-time turnaround in an environment where the vast majority of salmon are destined to die.
One Canadian study estimated only about 7 percent of the sockeye, chum and pink salmon fry that go to sea will make it back to the streams of their birth. Other studies have found survival rates can be sometimes higher in ideal conditions and sometimes way lower.
The survival rates of wild fish depend on the vagaries of nature, but hatchery operators are constantly looking for ways to improve these odds for their fish.
In California, for instance, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials reported finding that “salmon released in March following a rain event are more likely to survive than those released in April without rain, even if the fish released in March are smaller. Storms stir mud and other particles into the water, which provide cover for tiny salmon hiding from predators. Spreading out the timing also means that if one group encounters poor conditions, another might have better luck.
“Coleman (National Fish Hatchery staff) prepared the salmon for early release by giving them plenty of food during rearing to push their growth.”
Boosting salmon numbers with hatchery fish in this way can be considered a good thing right up to the point where the ocean or nearshore waters, where salmon spend the first important weeks of their life, reach carrying capacity.
Carrying capacity is the ecological limit to production after which survival becomes a zero-sum game, meaning that for every extra hatchery salmon that survives a wild salmon has to die, or vice versa.
Which fish live and which die in this situation can get very complicated because of the diet overlaps between various species and the environmental conditions that can favor some species over others.
Canadian scientists studying why “pink salmon in British Columbia, Canada, have flourished in the current era of climate warming in contrast to other Pacific salmonids in the same watershed” more than a decade ago reported that the high survival of pinks “may be linked with exceptional cardiorespiratory adaptations and thermal tolerance of adult fish during their spawning migration.”
Such findings have helped stoke concerns about pinks – “humpies as Alaskans call them – now dominant in a warmer Pacific.
Cost of ‘too many’
One peer-reviewed study concluded that “an analysis of up to 36 sockeye salmon populations from Puget Sound, Wash., through Southeast Alaska during the past 55 years revealed that high abundance of North Pacific Ocean pink salmon in the second year of sockeye salmon life at sea was associated with lower sockeye salmon productivity, reduced adult length-at-age, and delayed maturation.”
This, it added, resulted in an estimate that “the mean annual return of approximately 82 million hatchery pink salmon during 2005 to 2015…(reduced) sockeye salmon productivity by 5 percent in the Bering Sea, 6 percent in the Gulf of Alaska, and 15 percent in British Columbia (Canada) and Southeast Alaska.”
A study by researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration working in Southeast Alaska reported that the warming ocean allows coho salmon to “grow to a length greater than that in colder years,” but expected increases in growth and probably in abundance were being undermined by the “negative impacts of competition for food resources at high pink salmon harvests.”
Alaska is the big player in the pink salmon business along the eastern rim of the Gulf of Alaska. The state has allowed private, non-profit associations controlled by commercial fishing interests to turn Prince William Sound, the site of the wreck of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker just south of Anchorage, into one giant salmon ranch.
An area that averaged harvests of approximately 3 million wild pinks per year from before Alaska statehood in 1959 through 1979 is now pumping out about 45 million salmon per year on average, the vast majority of them the pinks.
But even a near fifteen-fold increase in salmon harvest has fallen short of what Seattle-based salmon processors active in the Sound had hoped to see.
In 2010, the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, an industry trade group, and three of the then-biggest processors operating in Alaska – Trident Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods and Ocean Beauty Seafoods – pushed for a greater than 60 percent increase in hatchery output.
“From 2000-2009 the average statewide hatchery pink returns were 32.6 million in even years and 55.9 million in odd years – in both cases about 40 percent of total pink returns,” they wrote in an “Open Letter to Alaska Hatcheries.”
“We would like production to increase to 70 million in both even and odds years over the next five years, which would bring hatchery production to roughly 50 percent of that total.”
Hatchery managers appear to be still working toward those goals, but have yet to reach them, especially in even-numbered years when pinks are less productive than in odd-numbered years. The harvest of hatchery pinks in 2021 totaled about 57 million, according to the state’s annual hatchery report. The 2020 harvest was less than half that at about 25 million, according to the state.
But the overall, statewide harvest of pinks has been boosted by wild-spawned fish some of which are hatchery fish gone feral. Most of the streams in the Sound now contain hatchery fish, and though they aren’t nearly as productive in-stream spawners as wild fish, they likely add to pink numbers.
Pink salmon harvests in total, according to state data, now average about 150 million in odd-numbered years and are near 70 million in even-numbered years. The state reported a catch this year of 148 million despite processors facing a pink salmon glut closing plants early and some gillnet fishermen trying to avoid catching pinks because of the record low prices being paid for the fish.
No economist to date has tried to estimate the losses to Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon fisheries due to these pinks, but those salmon, according to state numbers, are all far more valuable than their smaller relatives.
On a pound-for-pound basis, kings were worth about 11 and a half times as much as pinks last year; coho were worth more than three times as much; and sockeye were worth two and three-quarters as much, according to state data.
These are fairly normal ratios from year to year although sockeye – the state’s big money fish due to huge harvest in Bristol Bay – have sometimes risen to prices four times those of pinks. And though a market glut of sockeye this year pushed prices down to 50 cents per pound, sockeye could still end up five to six times more valuable than pinks which saw an even bigger drop in prices.
The never-ending quest for larger and larger harvests of wild and hatchery salmon in Alaska has pushed the volume of supply well above the consumer demand for the fish to the detriment of the state’s commercial fishermen in a world where, like it or not, net-pen farmed salmon dominate the market.
The net-pen farmers in Norway, Chile, the United Kingdom and elsewhere produce large and tasty-looking salmon filets perfect for restaurant sales or throwing on the barbeque at home. The ocean farmers of Alaska – or salmon ranchers as they prefer to call themselves – primarily produce pinks destined to be canned, ground into fish meal for eventual use as dog food or fertilizer, or shipped to China, if big enough, to be turned into budget filets sold in supermarkets such as Walmart where consumer reviews have in the past been so bad that Walmart no longer posts reviews, but you can still read a summary of them at the Mashed website.
More than two-thirds of the hatchery fish caught last year were pinks, according to state data. In 2021, an odd-numbered year much better for pink salmon production, about 80 percent of the hatchery harvest was pinks, according to the state.
Gale Vick, a member of the Fairbanks advisory committee, thinks she and her fellow committee members can make a good case for a hatchery production rollback, but concedes her group is up against tough political opposition.
Five years ago, the Fairbanks group plus 19 conservation organizations led by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the state’s most influential representative of anglers, tried to convince the Board to prevent the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) from pouring another 20 million pink salmon eggs per year into its incubators.
The effort failed.
The conservationists argued it was the Board’s responsibility to follow “the precautionary principle” as most previous Boards had done. The principle echoes the prime directive of medicine’s Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”
But the then-Board appointed by then-Gov. Bill Walker, a commercial fishing advocate and resident of Valdez prior to his election, flipped the rule on its head. Arguing that there was no definitive proof that hatchery pinks are harming wild salmon, the Board voted 4 to 3 to allow VFDA to take another 20 million pink salmon eggs to ratchet up the production of pink salmon already returning in a volume of about 17 million adults per year.
So many returned this year that fishermen couldn’t catch them all, leaving Valdez beaches littered with the carcasses of salmon which attracted Facebook posts questioning “why do we even have a hatchery for pink salmon when they compete with the dwindling chinook for food?”
There is no doubt about the food competition.
Researchers studying Chinook in the Bering Sea, where they compete with huge stocks of Russian sockeyes, reported that the “diet overlap between Chinook and pink salmon can be considerable, especially during the second season at sea for pink salmon, when they are large enough to consume squid and small fishes. The small energy-rich squid is a major component in the diet of Chinook salmon (and other salmon species) in the Gulf of Alaska, central North Pacific, and central Bering Sea.”
In the Bering Sea, these squid and small fish comprise about 80 percent of the diet of Chinook in the Bering Sea when they are readily available as food. But in odd-numbered years, when pinks are most abundant, squid are not so available.
“Chinook salmon consumed 72 percent less squid and 44 percent less fish, but 44 percent more euphausiids compared with even years,” the researchers said. The euphausiids – commonly known as krill – are not as energy-rich as squid and small fish, which means being forced to make due with that food source the kings are basically on a diet.
“Average weight of commercially caught Chinook salmon was relatively stable over time when abundance of pink salmon was low during 1952 to 1975,” the study says. “Immediately after the 1977 ocean regime shift (to warmer water), body size of (average) Chinook salmon reached its maximum (20.5 pounds) and then declined steadily
over time as pink salmon abundance increased.
“Chinook salmon body size reached the long-term minimum during 2015 to 2021 (average 12.6 pounds) when pink salmon abundance was peaking and when marine heat waves became more frequent,” the study reported.
Alaska pinks are not wholly to blame in the Bering Sea, but Alaska hatchery operators can take some of the blame. It was their success at farming the sea with pinks in the 1980s that encouraged the Russians to jump into the hatchery business in a big way.
As a result, the Russians now sometimes see pink salmon returns so big as to swamp their processing capabilities. And American salmon sometimes pay the price for this Russian salmon production in the same way Gulf of Alaska kings from the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska might be paying the price for American hatchery pinks.