CAN - Shrinking salmon: Hatchery Practices are Called into Question
Commercial salmon fishermen all along the West Coast of North America may be paying a serious price in lost poundage to help put dollars in the pockets of 267 Alaska fishermen who hold state permits to seine salmon from the waters of Prince William Sound if new research is to be believed.
The hidden costs of Alaska hatcheries
Most of the fish those Sound fishermen catch are hatchery pink salmon, the smallest of the six North Pacific species. And though these are the lowest-value salmon caught in the 49th state, Alaska Commercial Fishery Entry Commission records reflect that the value of the catch to the seiners has more than doubled from annual average “real earnings” per permit of about $106,000 per year in the 1990s to an average of $266,000 in the 2010s.
This wealth has come thanks to a system of Alaska hatcheries built to farm the ocean. Many of these were originally funded by the state of Alaska but are now under the control of private, nonprofit corporations run by commercial fishing interests. The hatcheries boosted salmon production in the state’s Panhandle, on Kodiak Island and especially in the Sound.
Hatcheries there transformed a fishery that produced annual, average catches of 3 million pinks per year in the 1950s, ’60 and ’70s into a business that can now boast a 10-times bigger annual haul with a five-year, average, annual catch of 34.3 million “humpies” as Alaskans most often call these three-pound salmon.
Two new studies suggest that turning the Sound into a pink-salmon factory both through the use of hatcheries and state management to maximize humpy production while ramping up hatchery farming of the ocean with hatcheries elsewhere in the state has helped put so many little salmon in the ocean that the bigger ones sometimes struggle to find enough food.
All of this has been good for Sound seiners, hatchery personnel involved in farming the ocean, lower-48-based salmon processors with plants in the Sound and, to a lesser extent, the 537 commercial fishermen who hold permits to gillnet salmon in the Sound. But two new studies suggest that turning the Sound into a pink-salmon factory both through the use of hatcheries and state management to maximize humpy production while ramping up hatchery farming of the ocean with hatcheries elsewhere in the state has helped put so many little salmon in the ocean that the bigger ones sometimes struggle to find enough food.
The end result, the researchers contend, is a steady shrinkage in the average size of both sockeye and Chinook salmon, and each ounce of weight lost from these high-value fish takes money out of the pockets of commercial fishermen who make their livings catching wild fish.
And the winners are?
On one level, there is no doubt the hatchery program has been a huge success. The ocean-ranching operations run by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC) and the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) now catch more pink salmon to finance their operations than commercial fishermen once netted while fishing throughout the 2,500-square-mile Sound.
As a result, hatchery employees now have jobs that, on average, pay them about twice what the average Alaska worker earns, according to a study conducted for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game last year permitted VFDA and PWSAC to harvest 4.72 million of these ocean-farmed pinks for so-called “cost-recovery” and broodstock. The cost-recovery operations subsidized the production of an estimated 17.1 million ocean-farmed pinks that were, as they say in Alaska, “wild-caught,” primarily in the purse seine fishery.
Some pinks are also caught in the Sound’s commercial gillnet fisheries but their value is so low – less than 50 cents per pound – that most gillnetters don’t bother with them. The state reported the 2022 gillnet harvest of humpies at less than 800,000.
Sound gillnetters do, however, net other benefits from the hatcheries.
The cost-recovery pinks help subsidize not only continued pink production but the rearing of the ocean-farmed chum and sockeye salmon caught in the gillnet fisheries. Sound chums, often marketed as “keta” salmon, are generally more than twice the size of humpies and worth more than twice as much per pound. Sockeye salmon, meanwhile, are near twice the size of humpies on average and worth up to six times more per pound.
Though peer-reviewed research has concluded the industrial-scale production of pinks in the Sound is depressing the size of the wild return of sockeye to the Copper River, once a mainstay of the largely Cordova-based gillnet fishery, gillnetters have been getting a significant payback for that loss in the form of hatchery fish.
Fish and Game this year calculated a gillnet harvest of 1.83 million hatchery chums in the Sound and 730,000 hatchery sockeye. The hatchery sockeye catch topped the Copper River harvest of 592,000 sockeye, now down to but 46 percent of the 10-year average of 1.09 million, according to Fish and Game.