Seawatch: 2018 season was ‘year of the salmon’

It has been the year of the salmon, between booms and busts, trade wars with China, battles over hatcheries, ballot initiatives and more.

Catch-wise, Bristol Bay was the big grin in a state full of salmon frowns, with a return of 62.3 million sockeye, the largest since records started in 1893, and the second-highest harvest on record.

In addition to the massive run, the preliminary ex-vessel value of the fishery topped out at around $281 million, the highest ever and 142 percent above the 20-year average.

Contrast that with Chignik, where there was not a single seine opening targeting sockeye, their mainstay fishery.

There were only two openings all season in inner bays targeting pinks, chums and coho, but those saw little effort. Only six boats made deliveries this season.

In all, statewide salmon fisheries fell 31 percent below the pre-season forecast of 147 million fish, and run timing complicated matters in some areas.

In Upper Cook Inlet, over half of the Kenai River sockeye run came in August, only the second time that has happened; Copper River sockeye returned in three distinct pulses, the third coming in mid-July; and even in Bristol Bay things were wacky, with the Kvichak River run peaking 10 days later than normal.

A notice from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stated that on years such as this, historical perspective is important.

“The three largest Alaska commercial salmon harvests on record occurred between 2013 and 2017; looking back to the mid-1970s, harvests between 100 and 150 million fish, like 2018, are far more common (18 seasons since 1975) than harvests exceeding 200 million fish (seven seasons since 1975),” it read.

Political uncertainty has roiled the markets with the threat of Chinese tariffs, which would hit salmon fishermen coming and going, since much of the Alaska pink salmon sold in the US goes to China first for reprocessing.

About 54 percent of the seafood Alaska exports goes to China.

While some Alaska seafood products have been dropped from the list of tariffs by both countries, including salmon, pollock and cod, the list is confusing, and made more so by the co-mingling of products being exported to China and re-imported by various countries.

And while the tariffs would directly impact fishermen and processors, there is tremendous trickle-down to all other aspects of the industry, from fuel, gear and grocery suppliers to the transportation and support industries.

Closer to home, there has been a heated discussion about hatchery salmon and whether Alaska is raising too many of them.

It led to an Agenda Change Request at a Board of Fisheries work session, a request to take up a subject outside of the standard 3-year Board cycle.

The ACR came from the sport fishing group Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which sought to block the Valdez Fisheries Development Association, a private, not-for-profit company that operates the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, from increasing its pink salmon egg take by 20 million, to 270 million, allowing for the release of an additional 19 million fry in 2019.

Another ACR, submitted by former BOF member Virgil Umphenour, requested capping pink salmon hatchery production at 25 percent of the levels from the year 2000, which can make that 20 million egg increase seem insignificant.

KRSA argued that an over-abundance of pink salmon from Prince William Sound hatcheries are harming wild runs of sockeye, king and coho salmon, much more valuable sport and commercial species, by exceeding the oceans’ carrying capacity.

The BOF rejected both ACR petitions, but it did get a significant conversation started about how many are too many salmon mouths in ocean.

Part of that conversation got started by the straying of large amounts of pink salmon from that hatchery to other parts of the state, in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, including Kachemak Bay and Beluga Slough, as well as some evidence of poor ocean survival rates for some salmon runs and species.

While the ACRs were voted down, some BOF members did express interest in possibly limiting hatchery releases, such as Israel Peyton and Orville Huntington, who pointed out that the overall egg take state-wide had grown by 1 billion since 2000.

Board chair Reed Morisky also expressed support.

Alaska’s hatchery program is designed to supplement wild runs, unlike the West Coast which started hatcheries to replace them.

That discussion pales in comparison to the raging battle over Ballot Measure 1, also known as “Stand For Salmon,” which according to Cook Inletkeeper advocacy director Bob Shavelson, seeks to “protect salmon by adding scientific standards to Alaska’s 60-year-old salmon habitat protection law.”

A bill similar to the ballot measure has languished in the legislature for years, prompting supporters to gather signatures state-wide to get it on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Supporters say it is a long overdue, and would help provide public input into a permitting process that would have allowed such projects as the Chuitna coal mine across Cook Inlet, allowing a foreign company to mine through and destroy a stream supporting all five species of Pacific salmon.

Opponents, such as vice-president of Conoco Phillips, Scott Jepson, have argued that it will destroy the Alaskan economy with job-killing regulations.

Both sides have been accused of accepting “Outside money” or “dark money” to fund the very active media campaign surrounding the proposition.

Scientists, fishermen, community leaders and powerful groups on both sides have weighed in, with 58 former state and federal fisheries scientists signing on to a letter supporting the initiative (current state and federal employees are not allowed to take a stand on political issues), and leaders such as former U.S. Senator and former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski — whose opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News ironically called for more hatchery fish to support flagging runs — opposing it.

Meanwhile, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission is launching a high-seas expedition to the central Gulf of Alaska during the official “International Year Of The Salmon.”

Scheduled for a month in late winter 2019, scientists from all five NPAFC nations will research genetic signatures, as well as test for diet, disease, size and health to better understand ocean carrying capacity and conditions that affect salmon survival.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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