In late March of this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued its forecast for the 2019 statewide salmon harvest as 213.2 million fish. This was good news for practically everyone interested in the Alaska salmon fishery, as the forecast represents an 84% increase, some 97.5 million fish more than 2018’s landings of about 116 million salmon. According to Fish and Game Fisheries Scientist Andrew Munro, “most of that increase is expected in pink and chum harvests.” Pink and chum salmon are responsible for 73% and 20%, respectively, of total enhancement production by Alaska’s private nonprofit salmon hatcheries.
Fluctuating harvests are a perennial headache especially for the commercial fishery, but the subsistence, sport and personal-use fisheries also feel the effects of year-to-year disparities. In the years since 2013’s record harvest of 272 million, the figure has plummeted to about 150 million in 2014, rebounded to almost break the record in 2015 with about 260 million, only to sink again to barely over 100 million in 2016, before rebounding to about 220 million in 2017.
Of course, every forecast has error bars around it. Last year’s harvest fell about 32 million fish shy of the preseason forecast. Alaska’s salmon hatcheries cannot completely dampen the natural swings in salmon harvests, but as their contributions to the fishery reliably represent 20% to 40% of the total catch, they sustainably ensure better seasons for all. What does that 20% to 40% mean, though, in terms of salmon consumed in homes and restaurants? About a billion meals a year, or about one meal for every seventh person on earth. That’s an impact we can all be proud of here at home in Alaska.
According to Alaska’s Division of Economic Development, the recovery rate for skin-on filleted salmon is about 65 percent, so 313.3 million pounds of fish caught represents 203.6 million pounds of fish ready for cooking. Assuming that an average portion of salmon is 4 ounces, that 203.6 million pounds of plate-ready salmon comes out to provide the main course for 814.6 million meals. Drop an ounce from that average portion size, give or take the chef’s preference or family size, and you have nearly one billion meals of nutritious Alaska salmon.
In addition to providing about a billion meals a year, Alaska’s salmon hatcheries are the source of about 4,700 jobs and $218 million in total labor income annually. This comes without any state subsidies or tax. The commercial fishing industry funds 100% of the hatchery programs. This isn’t surprising, given the boost that the hatcheries provide to the industry. In the years since 1974, when the hatchery program began, the average annual harvest of wild salmon in the Alaska fishery has almost doubled, from 40 million salmon (1910 to 1973) to 75 million salmon (1974 to 2018).
Even so, the hatcheries are not immune from controversy. Some claim that hatchery salmon displace wild salmon in the ecosystems they share, or that interbreeding between hatchery salmon and wild salmon degrades the fitness of the wild populations. The Department of Fish and Game permits and monitors the state’s salmon hatcheries and reporting carefully, however, limiting production whenever necessary. To resolve many of these questions, Fish and Game and the commercial fishing industry are conducting a series of research efforts, collectively known as the Alaska Hatchery-Wild Salmon Interaction Study. This study addresses genetic issues, the degree to which hatchery salmon invade wild salmon streams, and possible changes in the fitness of the wild populations.
In 2018, more than 270,000 hatchery-origin salmon were harvested in sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries from Ketchikan to Kodiak. Alaska’s salmon hatcheries are proud to help all Alaskans fill their freezers at no cost to them. During a time of fiscal crisis, this program stands on its own without reliance upon the state or its residents. Ultimately, this program is one of the most sustainable models of production in Alaska. It is financially independent, regulated by the state, and producing one billion meals per year to Alaskans and consumers worldwide. This is a program we can stand by, proving the test of time, no matter the political or economic turbulence. Alaskans can assert with confidence again this year that our beloved Alaska salmon continue to feed families in the Last Frontier, the Lower 48 and across the globe.
Steve Reifenstuhl is general manager of Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association; Casey Campbell is CEO of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation; Mike Wells is executive director of Valdez Fisheries Development Association; Tina Fairbanks is executive director of Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association; Eric Prestegard is executive director of Douglas Island Pink and Chum; Dean Day is executive director of Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association; David Landis is general manager of Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association; Bart Watson is General Manager of Armstrong-Keta.
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