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Science-based management the key to Alaska’s successful fisheries

  • Author: Tim Bradner
  • Updated: October 10, 2018
  • Published October 10, 2018

In a Sept. 13, 2018 photo, returning pink salmon swarm in a catchment area at the Kitoi Bay Hatchery on Afognak Island in Kodiak, Alaska. Kodiak’s hatcheries, as well as those across the state, were originally set up to give fishermen a safety net during years in which wild stocks are low. Alaska’s Private Non-Profit Hatchery Program, however, is currently at the center of a political battle that could see restrictions placed on the number of hatchery-reared fish that are released each year. (Alistair Gardiner/Kodiak Daily Mirror via AP)

One of Alaska's great success stories is the resurrection of our salmon fisheries after a virtual collapse that occurred under federal management in the years before statehood.

When Alaska became a state in 1959, the fledgling state government immediately instituted science-based fisheries management using sustained yield principles. Improved management helped, but coastal communities and the state economy lagged as the slow recovery process took place. When salmon runs had failed to recover by the early 1970s, the Legislature took two actions. First, it enacted a limited-entry program to control overfishing. Second, in partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, it created the framework for the state hatchery program.

The latter was part of a carefully developed plan to supplement wild stocks and offset wide swings in natural runs, particularly for pink salmon. Learning from the mistakes of the Lower 48, the program required hatcheries to be sited away from naturally occurring salmon stocks, required the use of only wild brood stock, and other steps to protect wild stocks. Stabilizing the salmon fisheries made it possible for harvesters to make a living, for processors to remain open, and for coastal communities to develop stable economies.

Nearly 50 years later, it is clear these initiatives have succeeded. Today, the state's salmon enhancement program with its with science-based management by the Fish and Game department, have helped to grow statewide salmon harvests since those lean years before statehood. From a salmon harvest of 25 million in 1959, we now routinely have catches of more than 100 million, which support thousands of fishermen and fishery-dependent businesses across Alaska.

Despite this success, and the stability that the hatchery program has provided the state and coastal economies, hatcheries are now being criticized by some who argue hatchery-produced salmon are overloading the ocean capacity, resulting in less food for king and sockeye salmon. The Alaska Board of Fisheries now has proposals before it to reduce current hatchery production and will meet on the issue Oct. 16.

Groups that submitted the proposals argue that the science on carrying capacity is settled, but scientists have actually been debating the issue of ocean capacity for decades and for now there's no hard evidence either way that the North Pacific is approaching its carrying capacity. As one scientist has noted, "trying to define ocean carrying capacity is like trying to catch a moonbeam in a jar."

It is clear that there are more salmon in the North Pacific, not just from Alaska but Japan, Korea, and Russia, and some researchers do believe that climate change and ocean warming could be creating effects exacerbated by increased salmon density. However, other scientists have doubts about significant adverse effects and warn of jumping to conclusions. In a recent paper submitted to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, two retired NOAA ocean researchers, Alex Wertheimer and William Heard, argue that the North Pacific marine biomass is so large that incremental increases of Alaska hatchery salmon have only minor effects.

Wertheimer and Heard also doubt juvenile pink salmon take food from juvenile king salmon, and say the king salmon's diet is different than pinks due to the depth at which they feed. The authors also find no correlation between the recent decline of king salmon with cyclical increases in wild and hatchery pink salmon. An intergovernmental organization, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, which aims to promote the conservation of anadromous stocks in the North Pacific Ocean, continues is addressing this question. New research is slated for next year. This organization includes Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia and the U.S., including advisors from the state fish and game department and NOAA.

Meanwhile, the economic value hatcheries create is important. Hatcheries are vital in bringing more stability to an industry that is cyclical and high risk. In some years of low cycles in wild salmon, hatcheries produced as much as 48 percent of the statewide harvest. In Prince William Sound, hatcheries have supplied as much as 80 percent of the harvest. What's important is that hatchery production has not harmed wild returns. State data indicates that years with high hatchery-origin pink salmon harvests are also years in which wild pink salmon harvests are high. The McDowell Group, the Juneau-based economics consulting firm, found recently that eight of the state's largest hatcheries produced $600 million in economic value in Alaska between 2012 and 2016, about a fourth of the value created by the state's total salmon harvest. Those eight hatcheries also created 4,700 jobs on an annualized basis, how seasonal jobs are calculated as if they were year-round.

With Alaska still in recession, curtailing hatcheries could cause real harm. Fortunately, Alaska's fisheries managers are prudent and not swayed by political pressure. They make decisions based on science. That's been the strength of our system since statehood. It's the reason we have strong fisheries, benefiting all Alaskans.

Tim Bradner is editor of the Alaska Legislative Digest and is the 2018 Atwood Professor of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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