Atlantic salmon debacle being repeated in the North Pacific

Alan Boraas

In the 1960s, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic corporations discovered the open-ocean habitat of Atlantic salmon at the juncture of nutrient-rich ocean currents in the Labrador Sea. Over the next two decades, high seas fishing reduced wild Atlantic salmon runs to almost nothing.

Two innovations contributed to the decimation of wild Atlantic salmon: the development of large, ocean-going freezer/trawlers and the invention of light, almost invisible nylon nets. A factory trawler could operate for months setting out drifts of a mile, catching whole schools of salmon. The Atlantic salmon fishery moved from bays and inlets to the open ocean and decisions from the wheelhouse to the boardroom.

Between 1960 and 1967, the high seas Atlantic salmon catch increased from 20,000 to 500,000. In 1968, an improbable Cold War alliance of the U.S., Canada, Britain and the USSR proposed curtailing the growth of high seas salmon fishing. Denmark, Norway and Iceland argued there was no scientific evidence that high seas fishing affected spawning salmon stocks and blocked the resolution. In 1969, the International Commission for Northwest Atlantic Fisheries banned high seas Atlantic salmon fishing but Denmark ignored the ruling and doubled its catch.

Many other factors conspired against the Atlantic salmon. For example, on the East Coast, quaint 19th century mill dams blocked migrating salmon and destroyed runs. In Norway, an ambitious post-World War II hydroelectric dam building program impacted 84 salmon-spawning rivers. Though provisions were made for fish ladders, the dams affected salmon in unforeseen ways such as riverbed drying, stranding of salmon due to planned flow changes, and high smolt mortality, since immature salmon are forced to migrate downstream through turbines. But high seas fishing probably took the greatest toll.

In 1972, under intense pressure from the United States and Canada, a complete ban on Atlantic high seas trawl fishing was enacted. Denmark simply intensified near-shore fishing in Greenland waters, which they controlled. By the 1980s and 1990s, Atlantic salmon stocks were in precipitous decline. In 1995, scientists devised a way to measure open-ocean salmon populations and advised a complete closure of high seas fishing.

Denmark objected, other nations acquiesced and a 77-ton quota was agreed to. The Danes proceeded to register some trawlers in Poland or Panama, effectively expanding their national quota. By the late 1990s, the commercial and subsistence harvest of wild Atlantic salmon was over.

Today virtually all commercially available Atlantic salmon are farmed salmon. Salmon are densely packed into floating pens and fed fish meal, antibiotics and hormones; four pounds of ground-up fish is needed to produce one pound of farmed salmon. To reduce costs, wheat byproducts, soybean meal and feather meal -- feathers from slaughtered chickens -- are added to the feed. The meat of farmed salmon is gray -- pigments are added to the feed for artificial coloring, and the salmon contain significantly reduced amounts of healthful Omega-3 fatty acids.

The Atlantic salmon debacle is being repeated on the north Pacific Rim. Overfishing, hydroelectric or irrigation dams, or habitat degradation and fragmentation have destroyed or severely reduced wild Pacific salmon runs in California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Japan and Russia. The Columbia River has 3 percent of the salmon run it did when Lewis and Clark visited. In the Sea of Japan, overfishing, dam building and habitat destruction, such as lining streams with concrete to protect rice fields, resulted in a wild salmon return of almost nothing by 1968. Genetically homogeneous hatchery fish, farmed fish and now the prospect of genetically modified salmon, "Frankenfish," are replacing the decimated wild stocks.

Pacific high seas wild salmon fishing is not the free-for-all it was in the Atlantic thanks in part to Section 101, Part B of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. After establishing a 200 mile limit (Part A), the act asserts that the United States claims authority over all anadromous fish "throughout the migratory range of each species." In other words, if they spawn here, they are our fish.

All is not well, however. For example, Bristol Bay Kvichak River sockeye runs dropped significantly after Japan, known to drift 100-mile-long nylon nets in the open ocean, negotiated fishing agreements in Russian waters (beyond the reach of the Magnuson-Stevens Act). Kvichak salmon migrate farther west than any other Alaska salmon, into Russian waters, and some show net marks indicating they have escaped open ocean nets.

Alaska is the last place on Earth with large, healthy wild salmon runs genetically adapted to their stream of origin. In addition to keeping our own house in order, we need to carry a big stick on the open ocean to assure these remarkable species are not squandered on our watch.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

Alan Boraas