Observations on the decline of Alaska’s King Salmon

July 8, 2024 in Seafood For Thought, Seasonal Wild Catch, Slideshow

Almost a year ago, a long time customer and investor of Otolith LLC, asked for my opinion on an article published in the NY Times. First of all, I am honored to be considered an opinion of value regarding North Pacific Fisheries, the subject of the article. Second, I am proud to work on behalf of and in cooperation with clients and supporters of Otolith LLC who are dedicated to testing the culture of their lives, understanding environments and interdependence of species, and interested in complex systems both man made like business and naturally occurring such as those deep within the waters of our world’s oceans. All of these subjects belong in our lives and at our table. Having the privilege to enjoy family dinners throughout my life, I learned to challenge my assumptions, question my sources and invest my time and my money in what I value. The NY Times article, I endeavor to organize my thoughts in the interest of contextualizing its reporting, Starving Orcas and the Fate of Alaska’s Disappearing King Salmon, was reported by Julia O’Malley; published on July 19, 2023.

In my twenties, I was introduced to commercial fishing, specifically Southeast [SE] Alaskan salmon fisheries. There are five wild salmon species: pink, keta, sockeye, coho and chinook (king). In 1996, SE Alaska had already begun enhancing salmon fisheries by way of hatcheries earlier that same decade, although some SE hatchers began in the 1980’s as pilot programs. During those early years of hatchery stock supplementation, SE King Salmon seemed wildly abundant, large, and sufficiently profitable to grow both global demand and its corresponding marketing industry for the world’s finest tasting and most nutritious salmon. Because availability was higher then, the price of king salmon sold at grocery stores was $18.99-$20/lb or thereabout depending on the season. Winter king salmon being fewer in number than summer harvested populations their price was notably higher yet not above $23/lb. Likewise once the peak of Alaska’s summer king salmon run began their final journey funneling themselves toward their spawning freshwater river destinations, catch level soared and were able to supply some summer fresh fish markets with fabulous quality Alaskan king salmon sold to consumers for as little at $16.99/lb. In the 1990’s millions of pounds of Alaskan kings caught included both wild king salmon and newly expanded upon hatchery programs’ king salmon, reared in near shore pens to be released as fry from their stable controlled environment free from predators until sufficiently grown to take on the wild waters of the ocean. At first glance, hatcheries were like a miracle to salmon harvesters. They offered assurance of abundant prey and continuous seasonal cashflow. They added predictability for processors and harvesters alike to prepare for larger seasons based on the number of fry released in prior years. Many made more money than ever before catching, processing and selling wild king salmon. King salmon landings have been declining over the last 40 years, and it is not surprising given the negative impacts hatcheries have had on the mortality rate of wild king salmon stocks over that same period.

Salmon researchers now know, hatcheries are not the panacea they were once thought to be. Because the salmon DNA, while taken from wild chinook, are used to replicate 8-10 times as many hatchery fry from a single genetic source code than would have occurred naturally among reproducing wild kings, the resulting hatchery salmon once released to complete their life’s journey in the wild are less resilient to life threatening environmental impacts and are increasingly more likely to reproduce directly with wild salmon than other wild salmon are to reproduce with one another. The survival rate of hatchery chinook is lower than that of their wild counterparts. This poses a risk to wild populations when hatchery reared salmon interbreed with wild salmon, thereby creating future populations of salmon also lacking the organic genetic diversity and resilience of a wild chinook. The exponential affect of reduced survival could be a primary reason why we are seeing fewer chinook salmon harvested today.

Reading in the article about Kenai Peninsula College’s presentation on the state of salmon given in April 2023 by Peter Westley, ass. Professor of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Science was the most informative and interesting part, albeit brief and under emphasized in its scientific significance. It is here that we read about parasites and their threat to wild king salmon. Additional challenges to king salmon, mentioned in Mr. Westly’s presentation, include climate change and hatchery fish, referred to as in competition with wild king salmon stocks. Although, I would not characterize the relationship between hatchery salmon and wild salmon as competitive given their assured mutual self destruction were hatcheries to continue with business as usual, it is the reporting of Westly’s mention of parasites that stimulated my interest not hatcheries.

Salmon farms are notorious breeding grounds for deadly salmon viruses and high concentrations of parasitic sealice. Washinton and Maine are the two largest farmed salmon producing states, and they are small compared to Canada (located between Washington and Alaska), Norway and Chile. Maine lost its wild Atlantic salmon fisheries back in 1948 due to development. Rivers and streams necessary for wild salmon to spawn were dammed, polluted, and/or filled in for development. Overfishing played a role in the loss of Maines wild salmon fishery as the population of the North east corridor grew to approximately 70% of the total US population. Salmon farms began in North America around in the 1970’s but they got the green light to expand and compete with wild salmon with pens located off the coast of Washington in 1980’s, about 40 years ago. It is known, farmed salmon spread disease to wild salmon traveling through and inhabiting surrounding waters of commercial salmon farms. The closer wild salmon interact within the area of salmon farms the higher become their numbers of infected wild salmon within a wild population. The deadly viruses and increasingly overwhelming parasites introduced by salmon farms are killing wild king salmon and the ocean floor below their pens. Meanwhile, salmon farms reportedly are working to reduce their use of antibiotics to control disease, while simultaneously being permitted to endanger the lives of wild salmon. The harm to wild salmon caused by salmon farming doesn’t end at diseases and parasites. Salmon farming derives the food fed to its product from wild fish harvested in the ocean. Using feeder fish, referred to as thus due to the entirety of the ocean food chain dependent upon them as food to sustain their biome, salmon farms inefficiently require up to 4.5 lbs of feed to produce 1 pound of gained farmed product weight. The justification of this net loss to global environmental balance being that some of the imbalance is offset by the post processing disposed fish carcasses commercially used to produce other products which can be fed to alternative species of farmed fish requiring far fewer seafood in their diet in order to grow such as tilapia and catfish. Farmed salmon is inefficient from inception in all things except profitability. Should farmed salmon ever reach an equilibrium whereas consuming 1 lb of fish meal were to yield 1 lb of equivalent growth like their wild DNA doners, it would still not justify to any rational salmon lover the cost of destroying one of the world’s best tasting and efficiently reproducing sources of a complete food which goes out to the depths of the Pacific Ocean in search of its sustenance before returning larger, tastier and conveniently to our doorstep for us to harvest and enjoy. It is a conflicting goal to support both wild salmon stocks and farmed salmon within a shared region of the ocean.

Scotland and other countries of Europe have chosen farmed salmon prosperity over wild. Their incentives include control of the resource, control of the price, and control of the legislation to minimally regulate salmon farms, claiming to embrace their struggle to provide new solutions to their continuous problem of increasing farmed salmon mortality due to disease and parasitic infestations, a direct result of the conditions of their farming. It’s the American equivalent of farming bald eagles while convincing us they should be the main dish at our Thanksgiving dinners. Farmed salmon producers are benefiting from the prestige of king salmon and its notorious characteristics of color, flavor, texture and nutrients, making it one of the world’s most satiating and scrumptious meals. Salmon farm companies, using slight of hand and marketing, serve an inequivalent, unsustainable, less desirable and far less enjoyable look alike manmade product as a substitute for the real thing. Farmed salmon is directly competing with wild chinook and its not a fair fight.

In the United States, our most influential commercial salmon fishery stakeholders include corporate seafood processors, fishermen and the small communities dependent upon the economy provided by salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Furthermore, US demand for salmon increases by nearly 20% annually as marketing over simplifies the health benefits of farmed salmon, population grows, cheaper farmed salmon become more available, and more consumers cut back on red meat. At best wild salmon is a stable reoccurring mega nutritious sustainable resource with an occasional boom year that is marginally predicable at best, while farmed salmon are produced with increasing equivalent volume of 20% annually and higher profit per pound at the expense of environment. It’s a tale as old as time, however it is not necessary all resources must be squandered in favor of profits. Diversity is a characteristic of sustainability. Without king salmon, what’s next? Coho? Sockeye? What if corporations wishing to profit from sales of goods were limited in the scope of their environmental destruction by regulations? We cannot turn the east coast back into a wilderness but, we can maintain an approach to environmental preservation that favors a sustainable longer sucess benefiting all of its citizens.

The result of chinook salmon’s calamity is conflict among local communities, corporate seafood processors, and fishery scientists. Like many industries, seafood in Alaska repeatedly used consolidation of facilities to increase profits and, using short term profit gains, pay higher dock prices to their largest and most effective harvesters in order to assure their loyalty and support. This process continues today as locally owned processors organize harvesters of their local fleet to consolidate interests in favor of their bottom line and their position regarding local fishery management and corporate goals. In the system of favored larges of harvest, process, and influence, it is often the case small independent salmon harvesters are underrepresented politically and socially even as they may conform and agree to the recommendation of science in favor of long term sustainability and exponential benefit to their community. The science and small vessel harvesters, of lowest environmental impact, appear to be on the same side in favor of increasing protection of the wild chinook salmon populations, increasing regulations for chinook salmon hatcheries, and dismantling salmon farms from regions home to wild salmon. As a consumer, I consider commercial salmon fisheries a bell weather issue in America. I support wild salmon culturally at my table, financially by supporting low impact harvesters and small independent processors, and by sharing my opinion against maintaining the status quo of king salmon’s declining fate. If we chose to passivly watch as our beloved king salmon reduce to irrecoverable numbers, then we may not blame climate, pollution, or overfishing. The most significant impacts to North Pacific King Salmon have all occurred throughout the last 40 years as hatcheries and salmon farms have increased to produce ever more salmon for stirred up market demand. It is not too late for pink salmon to be marketed successfully in the US providing an affordable delicious alternative to the mighty king. Pink salmon is second in omega-3 and, like all wild salmon, when harvested bright off the ocean are amazing.

 

References

  1. Salmon Farming Gets Leaner and Greener (nationalgeographic.com)
  2. Cracking the Code: Scientists Use DNA to Examine Differences between Hatchery and Wild Chinook Salmon in Southeast Alaska | NOAA Fisheries
  3. The DNA of salmon heritage | Focus (ubc.ca)