The Future of Alaska's Wild Salmon
Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson
Alaska’s wild salmon are one of the earth’s most extraordinary sustainable and renewable resources.
To maintain healthy salmon populations, two things have to happen: First, we must responsibly manage fishing harvests, and second, we must carefully protect the freshwater and ocean habitats where salmon spawn and grow.
Looking to the history of salmon in North America, we can see examples of fisheries that have decimated salmon runs, as well as responsibly controlled fisheries that maintained healthy salmon populations. There are also many cases of salmon habitat destruction and heroic efforts at restoration.
But the loss of salmon runs far exceeds successful restoration.
The few remaining populations of wild Atlantic salmon are listed as endangered (in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future) and are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Salmon runs on waterways along the U.S. Pacific coast, also once abundant, are now only 6-7% of their historic numbers. Many stocks of Pacific salmon are listed as endangered or threatened.
Alaska’s wild salmon runs, on the other hand, are healthy and can continue to provide food for the world into the far distant future. But wild salmon are always at risk. They are completely dependent on humans making good decisions, both large and small, based on a sound understanding of the needs of salmon throughout their life cycle.
Recently, there have been puzzling declines in some Alaska salmon populations. Scientists are also documenting changes in ocean conditions that may be affecting salmon. And Alaskans face complex, high-stakes decisions about planned developments that could profoundly affect the future of Alaska’s wild salmon.
Declining Chinook Salmon Returns
Since 2006, chinook salmon returns in some parts of Alaska have been declining. By summer 2012, runs in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Kenai Rivers had declined to the point where several major fisheries were strictly limited or closed.
These areas are extremely important for commercial, sport and subsistence fishing. Recent estimates predict upwards of $16 million in lost revenues. And importantly, villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers rely on salmon for both subsistence and commercial harvests. In September 2012, the U.S. Department of Commerce declared the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Kenai salmon fisheries economic failures, making commercial fisherman eligible for disaster relief.
Researchers still don’t know what is causing the chinook declines. This could be a naturally occurring cyclic decline, perhaps bottoming out in 2012. However, many biologists believe something in the ocean environment may be affecting chinook returns, because problems in freshwater habitat are usually restricted to one area, while the current declines are widespread. Shifts in ocean currents, changes in temperature, acidity, and predator-prey dynamics could be factors.
By-catch and Ocean Trawlers
There is a growing concern that by-catch, especially by giant ocean trawlers could also be impacting salmon. These ships drag huge nets behind them to catch pollock and other deep-water fish, but unfortunately, their nets scoop up other sea life too, including many thousands of salmon. Because the fish cannot be sold, most are simply wasted and lost from the spawning population.
Trawl by-catch increased to a peak of 122,000 chinooks in 2007 in the Bering Sea, and significant salmon wasting also occurred in the Gulf of Alaska. By 2012, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council limited chinook by-catch to 60,000 in the Bering Sea and 25,000 in the Gulf of Alaska. For perspective, a by-catch of 60,000 chinooks is more than half the total number of chinooks that came up the Yukon River from the Bering Sea in 2012.
Carefully and conservatively managing the harvest is critical to maintaining healthy salmon populations. It’s a simple fact: too many salmon harvested means not enough fish to lay eggs, and this means fewer fish in the next generation. It’s the same as taking too much money from a bank account and ending up poorer as a result.
Changes in Habitat and Farmed Salmon
History shows that major disturbances or changes to any part of the habitat that supports salmon can severely damage or destroy the runs.
Affecting both freshwater and ocean habitat is the rise in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, leading to climate change and ocean acidification. For example, rising temperatures are melting glaciers that feed lakes and streams; spawning waters are becoming warmer; ocean temperatures and currents are changing; lowering pH is causing ocean acidification…all of which can have profound impacts on salmon.
As the ocean becomes more acidic, it can literally dissolve the shells of marine creatures such as pteropods—which comprise almost half the diet of pink salmon.
Salmon farming—where the fish are raised in pens along the coast—has been promoted as a way to reduce pressure on wild runs. But farmed salmon can spread diseases and parasites to wild salmon. There have also been massive escapes of Atlantic salmon into the North Pacific, with unknown impacts on native fish. In addition, consumer advocates are concerned about the use of antibiotics and dyes in farmed fish.
Salmon farms are prohibited by law in Alaska, but there is large-scale salmon farming in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia
Dams and Mining
Even while efforts are underway on the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska to restore salmon streams impacted by clearcut logging, there may be trouble on the horizon for other wild salmon runs in Alaska.
There are dozens of active, developing, or proposed mines along Alaskan rivers and their headwaters in Canada.
There are also two massive industrial projects that could impact or seriously damage some of the most valuable wild salmon runs in the world.
The Susitna River is home to all five species of wild salmon—pink, chum, coho, sockeye, and the 4th largest chinook run in Alaska. A proposed 885-foot dam on this great wild river would be one of the tallest in the world.
Supporters emphasize that the Susitna Dam would help to meet the energy needs of Anchorage and other communities. Opponents are concerned about the effect on valuable salmon runs, and on wildlife like wolves, grizzly bears, and moose, and on tourism in a vast area of pristine wilderness.
Many local residents believe the cost of construction—early estimates are in the $4.8 to $6 billion ranges—and the threat to fish and other wildlife, is not worth the amount of power that would be generated. At a time when dams are being removed to help threatened salmon runs recover, critics question the wisdom of constructing a dam on a large salmon-producing river.
Salmon spawning downriver from the Susitna Dam would be adversely affected by the fluctuations in stream flow with varying demands for electricity. One population of king salmon spawns upstream of the proposed dam, and these fish would never again return to their spawning grounds.
Pebble Mine and the Bristol Bay Fisheries
The Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska supports a world-class fishery including the world’s largest sockeye runs. It is also the home of many Native Alaskans, who live in more than 20 villages and follow a subsistence way of life. Salmon have been a major food source and an integral part of their culture for thousands of years.
The Bristol Bay area is rich in wildlife, with 40 mammal species, 35 species of fish, and more than 190 birds. This ecological abundance in turn supports subsistence hunting and fishing, sport hunting and fishing, commercial fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities, such as camping, hiking and bird watching. In 2009, these activities contributed about $480 million to the economy ($300 million for commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay) and 14,000 full and part-time jobs (more than 11,000 of these in the commercial fishing industry).
The area is also rich in mineral deposits, including copper and gold. But because these are low-grade deposits, mining has to take place over a large area and would generate a large amount of waste.
The proposed Pebble Mine would be the largest open-pit mine in the world, requiring a waste reservoir impounded by a massive earthen dam, within one of North America’s most active earthquake zones. Supporters point out that the mine would create jobs and contribute to Alaska’s economic wellbeing. Opponents emphasize the risk of habitat impacts and toxic releases that could severely damage the great salmon runs and jeopardize a whole constellation of other natural treasures.
It’s important to remember that we all use the products of hydroelectric power, agriculture, timber harvesting, and mining. Thoughtful critics recognize the value of these industries, but advocate for practices and policies that place equal value on protecting habitat for salmon and the living community to which they belong.
Putting Salmon First
Salmon are the purest embodiment of a truly sustainable resource…yet for all their success and abundance, history shows that salmon are extremely vulnerable to human impacts. The loss of salmon runs began in Europe several centuries ago, continued in eastern North America, and finally spread to the Pacific Northwest.
To avoid repeating this tragic history in Alaska, we need to consider our choices very carefully. And we need to preserve salmon runs in exactly the same way that they have been damaged—one stream at a time, one decision at a time.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about salmon is this: If we fish carefully and protect habitat in the rivers and sea—salmon will return every year, enriching our economy, supporting our communities, sustaining our families, enthralling our visitors, and nurturing our ecological systems—literally forever. In this sense, salmon are a perfect resource, incomparably more sustainable than the minerals from mines, the energy from oil or gas, even the power from dams.
It can be said that generations far into the future will benefit from salmon, just as we do today…if we always put salmon first.