Alaskan salmon fisheries: is this sustainable – or a great intervention?

During a quick look around Twitter and the ‘tweets’ of some fishy folk, I came across various news articles from other geographic areas with wild salmon fisheries. It got me pondering the great Alaskan salmon fisheries experiment

Here is salmon catch in Alaska for the last century… or so… (the PNP program is the “public — non-profit program” for running salmon hatcheries – ocean ranching operations).


Are these levels sustainable into the future?

Is there any way possible that this is sustainable into the future?

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Here are two other telling graphs:


Anchovies... South America

Canada's North Atlantic cod catch


Is there a trend here?










That trend has a common shape… and curiously the Alaskan commercial salmon catch has a price trend that may be foreshadowing the catch trend…



(Remember, there was no shortage of salmon being caught prior to 1878 — especially in Alaska where Russian and other ‘explorers’ and ‘settlers’ were pillaging the coast for sea otter furs for quite some time prior to 1878 — And First Nations and Inuit had been harvesting wild salmon for eons prior to ‘contact’ — including in a commercial context for trade…

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Now, let’s add another even more worrisome trend into this Alaskan commercial salmon catch graph:


Hatchery to wild salmon commercial catch in Alaska

This graph comes compliments of “The Great Salmon Run: competition between farmed and wild salmon” (Knapp, Roheim and Anderson, 2007). It’s suggesting that the average hatchery-salmon catch is starting to approach 25% of the commercial catch in Alaska — or ocean ranching as they call it.

As the black boxes in the graph demonstrate, and as history most likely teaches us, the great intervention will need to continue to maintain catch levels that high. As we move into the second and third decades of the 2000s the hatchery-ocean ranching intervention will need to continue and the percentage of catch supplied by human intervention will continue.

The potential problem here is that this is a nasty little cycle that no one really wants to talk about…

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Hatcheries/Ocean ranching operations in Alaska are run by the PNPs — the “public — non-profit partnerships” . These were formed in the 1970s and 80s when the State of Alaska took over management of wild salmon from the Feds (as shown in the graphs).

These PNPs are largely operated by commercial fishing associations and the like. This means that the hatcheries-ocean ranching operations were set up under the same auspices of Canada’s Salmon Enhancement Program (SEP) — to increase salmon production and therefore increase commercial salmon catches.

These grand industrial/ecological balance upsetting experiments began in earnest in the 1970s. A time of a different mainstream cultural mindset, and a different understanding of ecological processes (well… sort of…).

In Alaska, the key to keeping these PNP Aquaculture Associations (hatchery-ocean ranching operations) afloat is that salmon caught commercially have:

FIRST — a cost recovery component and then

SECOND — a profit motive for the commercial fishing folks.

However, as one can see in the graphs above — stupendous salmon catch levels are being maintained at over 200 million fish across Alaska; YET the price levels are falling faster than the 2008 Dow Jones stock market index. (And cracks are starting to show in whether these catch levels can be maintained — see Yukon River fishery disaster at end of post)

And just like the stock market, sure there’s been a little blip back up in price — but nothing that resembles past price levels.

What does this mean for the Alaskan Hatchery-Ocean Ranching Operations?

Here’s a sample from one of the annual reports: The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association 2008 Annual Report.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) was created to make more salmon for all users in Cook Inlet. Our forefathers hoped to provide a home for salmon biology; to gather ideas and knowledge, and a means of broadcasting this science to fishing communities and to the general public. These founding visionaries clearly planned to have a hatchery. (my emphasis)

Quite a fascinating opening to an annual report… I’m not one to quite buy-in to the philosophy of salmon hatcheries as manifest destiny… however, each to their own…

The annual report goes on to explain:

Meanwhile, the CIAA hatchery program also continues to financially struggle. A new sockeye project at Tutka Bay was very successful in 2008. Recent high prices for early hatchery-produced sockeye at Resurrection Bay have also shown promise. I’m currently holding my breath and hoping adjustments to the cost recovery program are successful, concurrent with improvements in ocean survival for the Resurrection Bay stocking.

About 15 hatcheries across Alaska have closed and facilities at Crooked Creek, Eklutna, Port Graham, and Tutka Bay are among them. These sites continue to be used for various projects, but at a fraction of their capabilities. I believe CIAA needs to find funding to maintain operation of Trail Lakes Hatchery. Achieving escapement goals for all systems in Cook Inlet and financing a hatchery are challenging endeavors, but they are essential for the many users of today’s salmon.

We need to find a way through the financial problems we are facing and then begin to build a healthy revenue reserve. The men and women who founded CIAA were wise to do so. I am proud to join them in their effort to realize more salmon for all users.

And so now hatchery/ocean ranching operations are having to close due to financial hardship. Furthermore, some of the practices such as lake fertilization, and mass hatchery operations are starting to show some serious issues on the ecological front. Some of these are even highlighted in the good old Marine Stewardship Council audits of the Alaskan salmon fishery (however, that’s a separate post…)

In short, the mass practice of hatchery releases has huge impacts on wild, self-sustaining populations — in terms of loss of genetic diversity and in terms of giving a false sense of security in opening certain fisheries.

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And so now the vicious cycle begins — something akin to this:


Alaskan PNPs... the vicious cycle

And so what is a State government to do?

It has set this mess up through its devolution from Fed responsibility.

If more hatcheries go belly up (like a salmon in an oil spill) this means less salmon going to sea and the less salmon we will see (returning).

This means lower catch, which means less $$ for commercial fishing industry… and less $$ in cost-recovery initiatives of these public — non-profit aquaculture operations.

Less fish going out, less fish coming in, less money coming in.

Interim solution?

Catch more fish to bring in more $$ to curb the debt load.

Catching more fish means less fishing spawning and producing naturally. Less fish producing naturally, and less fish being propagated by humans — means less fish to catch down the road.

What does this all set up?

Government bail-out.

Bail out of the fishing industry — like US government had to do on the Yukon River last year.

Anchorage Daily News reporting in January 2010:

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke declared a commercial fishing disaster for Yukon River king salmon Friday following two years of poor runs, fishing restrictions and bans.

“Communities in Alaska along the Yukon River depend heavily on chinook salmon for commercial fishing, jobs and food,” Locke said in a statement from the Commerce Department. “Alaska fishermen and their families are struggling with a substantial loss in income and revenues.”

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When we intervene with most anything — e.g. oil-rich dictator run countries — history suggests that these interventions can — in the long-run — become very, very expensive and sometimes counterproductive.

When it comes to wild salmon — the interventions are endless (hatcheries, fertilization schemes, fake habitat construction, and so on…).

The problem is that once the interventions start ‘working’ everyone seems to forget they were interventions in the first place. And so we return to how things used to be — before the interventions…

The result?

A worse frigging situation than prior to the intervention.

Look at the US bank and auto industry bailout packages — do you really think the ridiculous executive compensation packages have stopped?

Or, that auto executives curbed their flying around in private jets?

Are individual citizens taking the example of debt out-of-control and curbing their own household debt?


Maybe we need to look at the root of the word and put it in the right context…

intervene comes from Latin intervenire “to come between, interrupt.”

Various definitions suggest: “Come between so as to prevent or alter a result or course of events”

Or most fitting for this situation: “Occur as a delay or obstacle to something being done.”

And what were we, or are we, “delaying”?

The inevitable.

If we continue to hammer away at salmon runs and at salmon habitats and ignore the potential perils of climate change and its affect on salmon and their habitat… we will reach a time when no intervention will offset the inevitable collapse…

What are we potentially delaying in relation to “something being done”.

That’s called lack of political will… (and public pressure)

And nobody wants to make the real tough decision… e.g. intervene on the interventions… because that will cost…

And the public has a tough time exerting pressure because the world of salmon and “salmon management” has become the world of technocrats, techno-bumpf, endless hundreds of pages government documents, inaccessible meetings flooded with inaccessible PowerPoint presentations, inaccessible government bureaucrats (e.g. “sorry that’s not my department), inaccessible language, and legislation that simply is not enforced, legal teams with little interest in enforcing and the list goes on…

Is it time for a full-on public intervention?

A Citizen’s Assembly on Wild Salmon?


3 thoughts on “Alaskan salmon fisheries: is this sustainable – or a great intervention?

  1. Spencer F. Baird

    Alaskans have long believed in Alaskan exceptionalism, and will gleefully tell you how Alaska is not just different, but better. I’m no hatchery apologist, but I do have to point out that the Alaska hatchery system has managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that WA, OR, BC, etc. have fallen into, and manages to produce a lot of fish at relatively little risk to wild stocks. It’s definitely a case of learning from the mistakes of others. Alaska also has the enormous advantage of having intact freshwater and nearshore marine habitats, well-managed fisheries, and correspondingly robust wild populations. It’s not without its problems, but my view from the inside is that people are doing a pretty good job of doing the right thing for fish and people.
    The “cycle” that you postulate is way off the mark, however. The idea that a hatchery would somehow intercept wild fish to pay off debts or operating expenses is absurd. There have actually been a number of hatcheries that have closed due to poor management, poor performance, or other reasons. It’s like any other business – if it doesn’t work, it won’t last long. They don’t get bailed out – they get foreclosed upon. Cook Inlet Aquaculture is such an outlier in the Alaska hatchery world that it is misleading to use it as an example. They’re a whole story to themselves. I would suggest looking at KRAA, NSRAA, DIPAC, SSRAA, etc. for better examples of how it really works (I would add PWSAC, but they’re a bit more controversial…).
    Looking forward to more discussion.
    – An inaccessible bureaucrat

  2. salmon guy Post author

    awesome, thanks ‘Spencer’,
    I was hoping to spur some discussion from northern friends and ‘inaccessible bureaucrats’. : )

    I’m sure there are good examples, just as there are some excellent, well-intentioned bureaucrats out there. I also figured I may need to quote some recent material from MSC reviews — as it seem the questions are starting to flow on hatchery/ocean-ranching practices. (some of those coming from folks from south of Alaska wondering if they mass of ocean ranching released juvenile salmon are impacting wild populations down this way…)

    I see in a recent MSC review that several concerns were mounted on “straying” from various hatcheries and how much information is actually relied upon for “management”. There’s also a certain amount of “some” and maybe, and could be…

    For example,

    “Managers have some scientific basis for assuring that harvest rates for enhanced stocks are not adversely affecting the majority of wild (un-enhanced) stocks within each stock unit.”

    Also, in the Copper River area:

    “Enhanced and wild sockeye stocks are harvested at the same time in the latter part of the run. In-river goals are established for both wild and hatchery stocks but it is unclear whether existing information on hatchery and wild stock composition is adequate to determine whether goals are met. It is unclear whether data and analyses are adequate to ensure that the presence of enhanced sockeye in the management unit does not adversely impact the wild stock…

    …What is still not apparent, is whether an analysis has been conducted using the information that is generated through marking to determine whether the goals for enhanced and wild stocks are being met. The assessment team did not receive any further input from ADF&G on this matter…”

    Further along the report in relation to Prince William Sound:

    “While the Department‘s research programs are making progress in regard to gathering needed information, the 80 Scoring Guidepost for this condition will not be achieved until the Department completes an analysis of the results of the straying studies in the context of the State‘s genetics policy and wild stock escapement goals.”

    This is from the Moody International report: “Second Marine Stewardship Council Annual Surveillance Report Alaska Salmon Fisheries”

    So it seems there may certainly be a jury or two still out for deliberation. It also seems that newspaper reports of certain Alaskan rivers experiencing salmon crashes — this was largely unheard of in the past.

    Something has got to give…

    thanks again for the comment, and I hope you leave more. (like the Alaskan reference in the name)

  3. Spencer F. Baird

    Hatchery sockeye production in the Copper River is from the Gulkana facilities (PWSAC), which are basically two incubation sites maybe a mile or so apart. They collect a mixture of H and W broodstock, incubate the eggs, and release the fry to various lakes. The amount of human intervention is minimal compared to the smolt-rearing hatcheries that most people think of. All their fry are thermal-marked, which allows assessment of contribution to fisheries, broodstock composition, etc. This program is pretty small compared to the overall Copper River wild production, but does produce about 200K adults. The management is strictly for wild stocks – it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the presence of these fish would affect the decision making at all.

    Prince William Sound is an interesting case. After the 1964 earthquake, the Sound was dramatically rearranged, so that many streams were uplifted and suddenly had new anadromous barriers, while spawning reaches in others were tidally submerged. Due to the topography, wild salmon production had always been fairly limited compared to other regions of AK, and featured a lot of small pink salmon runs using short streams and intertidal areas to spawn. The earthquake heavily favored intertidal and pioneering (read “straying”) pink salmon stocks. When the hatchery program came soon after, those were the stocks used for broodstock. Imagine if all of Europe were decimated, except for the Gypsies, which then took over. PWS pink stocks have likely always functioned as a set of overlapping regional metapopulations, and that probably hasn’t changed. There has been well-documented exchange between wild and hatchery reared stocks, no question. The jury’s still out on the long-term effects that has on the sustainability of the wild runs. Remember, before hatchery production, there were lots of years where no fishery at all occurred, and now there are extremely lucrative fisheries fairly consistently. Personally, I think the direction we need to take is to figure out how to best manage the hatchery and wild fish as a integrated metapopulation, rather than try to compartmentalize the two. I recommend reading the back and forth between and Wertheimer to get different takes on the PWS situation.

    Back to generating an inaccessible document…

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