Laine Welch: Salmon survey casts wide net but falls short in one area

Laine Welch

When the results of a six-year study of Western salmon are unveiled later this month, the results will not be what people of the region had hoped for.

Some background: the Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification Project (WASSIP) was launched in 2006 by a group of 11 organizations, including the Aleut Corporation, Aleutians East Borough, Association of Village Council Presidents, Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, Bristol Bay Native Association, Concerned Area M Fishermen, Kawerak, Lake and Peninsula Borough, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The mission: to sample commercial and subsistence chum and sockeye salmon fisheries from Chignik to Kotzebue to better understand the origins and composition of harvests in westward fisheries and the effects these fisheries have on salmon stocks across the region.

Researchers hoped to identify the origins of chum salmon migrating through Alaska Peninsula waters to western regions.

Over four years, nearly 320,000 samples were collected and 156,000 analyzed by the Fish and Game Gene Conservation Laboratory. It took a full year of laboratory time to complete the genetic studies.

"It is unprecedented. You are not going to find any salmon genetics project in the world that even comes close to this," said Eric Volk, chief scientist for Fish and Game's Commercial Fisheries Division.

Genetics stock identification projects typically reveal the salmon stocks that are harvested in a particular run and the proportions of those stocks that make up a catch, Volk explained.

"We not only look at each fishery and which stocks are contributing to that fishery but we also look at it from the other side -- which is, for any given stock of interest, which fisheries are catching that stock."

The study has yielded a wealth of information on chum and sockeye salmon migrations, estimating escapements, genetic markers and baselines. And more is sure to come. But it came up short in terms of the big question surrounding chums.

"We were hoping that we could recognize genetically the chum stocks that originate from Norton Sound or the Yukon or the Kuskokwim or Bristol Bay. That would be very informative, for people to look at a fishery and be able to discern which of those stocks are caught in what proportion," Volk said. "Unfortunately, we turned over every stone but we just can't genetically separate out those groups over that broad stretch of coast. That was a major promise of the project and we were not able to do that."

Volk called WASSIP an unprecedented model of stakeholder participation.

"I felt honored to be sitting at the head of the table," he said. "This was such a diverse stakeholder group that operated by consensus. Let's face it: These results are potentially impacting these people's lives. So the idea that we were able to get everyone to agree on how and where to sample a fishery, how we would do the analyses -- that's incredible and a fascinating example of how it can work."

The WASSIP reports will be available Nov. 19.


When you bite into a fish sandwich at your favorite fast food restaurant, more than likely it is pollock from Alaska. The popular whitefish is soon to be added to the McDonald's menu as Fish McBites and other quick-serve outlets will follow suit.

Burger King, Jack in the Box and Arby's also are ramping up to buy frozen blocks of Alaska pollock fillets for their own fish items.

"It's only good news for us and the Alaska industry," said Pat Shanahan, program director for the trade group Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. The group promotes pollock that is caught and processed in Alaska to markets around the world.

"What we are seeing now is with their commitments to sustainability programs and to offer more healthy fish items, they are including even more Alaska pollock on the menu."

Customers prefer Alaska pollock because, unlike product from Russian fisheries, the fish fillets are deep skinned and only frozen once.

"What restaurants are looking for is a completely white piece of fish, and the deep skinning removes the fat line," Shanahan explained.

Being certified as a sustainably managed fishery also is a strong selling point. Fast food giant KFC in France, for example, has taken its support for good fishing practices to a whole new level by getting its own eco-label and will serve only Alaska pollock at its 143 outlets.

The producers' group also has led the charge to get more fish onto student lunch trays by pushing to list Alaska pollock among school commodity foods.

Last year more than 3 million pounds of Alaska pollock were purchased by schools through the USDA Food Program, and nearly 2.25 million pounds in the first three months of this school year. The pollock poundage is actually higher due to additional product sold to schools through regular channels but Shanahan said those figures are not made public.


A call is out for photos that highlight the Alaska fishing life. Winning entries will receive an Apple iPad.

"We want to show off more of the great folks and fisheries and scenery and everything going on up here, first-hand from the people out there doing it," said Tyson Fick, communication director with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, sponsor of the photo contest.

Photos can be entered in several categories and the winning images will be featured in ASMI's global outreach programs.

"We are active in 21 different countries as well as throughout the U.S., as well as online and on Facebook. So it's a great way to show ourselves off," Fick said.

Creating more awareness of Alaska seafood responds to people's desire to know more about where the food comes from and how it gets to their plates. "Alaska has the very best story in all of food," Fick said.

A big part of the story is all of the people working together to get Alaska seafood to customers around the world.

"It's the people who catch and process the fish, the scientists and managers and the ones who ship it and distribute it to chefs or retail counters," Fick said. "They all are a part of the Alaska fishery."

Enter the contest and upload photos at The entry deadline is Dec. 31.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact

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