OPINION: Wild salmon are Alaska's real heritage

alaska red and silver salmon

Tough times require tough conversations. We need to talk about saving Alaska’s wild salmon heritage. Bycatch, intercept and climate change are all taking a toll — and so are hatcheries.

Wild salmon are Alaska’s legacy; hatchery salmon are not. This distinction creates confusion in management, marketing and harvesting because we don’t universally acknowledge the difference. A recent commentary published on Jan. 25 illustrated that point.

Hatchery-bred salmon are genetically distinct from wild salmon. The state recognizes the need for separation, but this is an almost impossible task. Hatchery salmon, released into the ocean, compete with wild salmon for time, space and food in the marine environment. Hatchery salmon straying into intertidal areas and wild streams threaten the genetic diversity of wild stocks.

Alaska’s PNP (private nonprofit) hatchery salmon system was created to augment wild salmon for commercial reasons. Separate from sports hatcheries, PNPs depend on enhancement taxes, cost recovery and loans for the immense cost of operations. When the Alaska Hatchery Act was passed in 1974, we had territorial history, but we did not have the ecological knowledge of more recent decades telling us that adding more fish into the ocean may be exacerbating wild salmon declines.

Mixed-stock fishing of wild and hatchery salmon may sustain thousands of Alaskans and non-Alaskans, but that’s no comfort to the thousands of Alaskans who have lost their traditional access to wild salmon. Their pain is searing and unconscionable, and it has a downward trajectory. Chinook has been in a statewide decline that has closed or reduced fishing opportunities everywhere. In the AYK (Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim), wild chum and coho have lost abundance to the point that virtually all fishing has stopped. Sockeye is getting smaller. This deeply threatens the food security and cultural well-being of thousands of Native and non-Native residents from the headwaters of the Yukon River in Canada to the Bering Sea and in the Gulf of Alaska, indeed all creatures who are salmon-dependent.

We must provide for Alaskans first before we feed the world. Our State Constitution is clear that we are to manage our natural resources for the residents of Alaska. We have a rigorous Sustainable Salmon Policy that defines the principles we should use to guide management, but those principles are too often ignored. The burden should be on proving that our management practices, including hatcheries, do not harm our wild salmon populations.

If we don’t address the root causes of wild salmon declines, we could all be eating hatchery pinks because wild stocks will be extirpated. We can’t just blame climate. We can’t “grow” our way back to wild salmon abundance. And we can’t ignore the growing evidence of negative hatchery impacts.


Salmon runs have fluctuated over millennia, but in the past 150 years, we have been in a regime of human impact that has resulted in the extinction of entire wild salmon runs in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. There are many decline factors, including fragmented management systems and our unwillingness to systemically examine our commitment to protecting wild stocks.

Reducing the excessive number of hatchery pinks is a start. Board of Fish proposals offer incremental changes but we cannot fully address these differences in sound bites. We need a sustained robust dialogue with stakeholders and scientists from Alaska, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest.

Are we going to protect wild salmon stocks or depend on hatcheries for the future? This has not worked well for the Pacific Northwest. We cannot make the same mistakes that have compromised or wiped out wild salmon elsewhere. We hold the options for making the difficult decisions about protecting our true wild salmon heritage.

Virgil Umphenour is a former Board of Fisheries member, longtime Fish and Game Advisory Committee member, advisor to the Yukon River Panel, and one of the original architects of the Sustainable Salmon Policy. He owns a processing plant in Fairbanks.

Karma Ulvi is the Chief of the Native Village of Eagle, Chair of the Fish and Game Advisory Committee, and chair of the Yukon Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. She lives a subsistence lifestyle in Eagle Village.

Gale Vick chairs the fisheries subcommittee of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee. A former subsistence and commercial fisherman, she has been involved in fisheries policy consultation since 1991.

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