On Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website, they posted an update on September 6, 2012 with the following:
• Silver salmon fishing is reported to be fair to poor in Resurrection Bay. Some boats are catching fish, but few and far between.
• Boats at the head of the bay have come close to catching limits, and those catching limits are fishing deep and all day.
• Feeder kings are caught each day – be sure to ID all the fish you catch.
• The beach fisheries remain slow. For the best salmon fishing, you need a boat.
Seward, Alaska, sitting at the head of Resurrection bay, is well known for being a silver salmon hotspot. In fact, Seward holds claim to being the biggest landing port for silver salmon in the state (and I’m sure it is safe to say the world). Seward will be holding its 58th Annual Silver Salmon Derby this upcoming August, an event that brings anglers from all over the state and across the nation, to cast their line for fame and a small fortune. In 2012, Michael Rogers, a 64-year-old who was born and raised in Seward, caught a $50,000 tagged fish, only the second time this has been done in the history of the derby. But, despite the headlines, rumors abound, and the rumors suggest that the silver salmon fisheries in the North Gulf Coast area are not as abundant as they once were and now everyone is playing the blame game.
Located at the top of “J” dock, as a manager of a small sport fish processor and seafood market, I find myself with access to a unique cross-cut of the fishing industry in Alaska. In any given day I may have conversations with a fisherman along the shoreline, a private boater, a charter captain or mate, a commercial captain or crew, and various suppliers and distributors of wild Alaskan seafood, all the way down to the one-time tourist.
From what I have heard, the older fishermen say that it is only cyclical, and that “next year will be better,” they promise. One local fisherman believes that if only we decrease the bag limit inside the bay from 6 silvers per day to 3 silvers per day it will help increase harvests from beach fisheries. The private boaters and the shore fishermen point fingers at the charters. The charters look to the commercial fishing industry. The commercial fishermen blame it on the government or global warming or the changing of the currents. Another local businessman says that we cannot have a complete and thorough discussion regarding sustainable management of salmon fisheries, without talking about escapement and habitat. While all of these rumors and partial statements may contain elements of truth, one thing that cannot be disputed is that private boat fishermen account for the majority of the silver salmon catch landed in Seward.
With all the debate and rumors circulating, I decided to get some answers from someone “in the know.” My interest was piqued on the subject at a Seward Chamber of Commerce presentation given by Dan Bosch. Dan Bosch is a Fishery Biologist III with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with a focus on the sport fishing industry in south central Alaska. Below is a transcript of our conversation:
A:Who do you think is the culprit? Who is to blame?
D:There are two things to look at. The silver salmon (compared to king salmon) are going to be the most susceptible to the marine environment, because they only go out for one year. All the silvers that go out this spring will come back the following spring. So if they run into lousy conditions out there right now, it doesn’t matter what we stock.
A:What are lousy conditions?
D:Conditions where they can’t find good food right away. They have two real obstacles for survival. The first is they must be of a big enough size when they first go out that they can survive long stretches of starvation, because right away they have to look for a new kind of food, whether they are coming out of the streams or out of the hatcheries. They have to adjust to a food source they have never seen before. Then, they have to be big enough to survive the next winter and again long stretches without food, because that is when the least amount of food is out in the ocean. King salmon will be slightly mitigated to this because they have more than one year class that returns to spawn each year.
If you look at just the Seward area, the fish stocks have come back out in the Pony Cove area, a huge mixed-stock fishery. The fish here are really coming from everywhere and going everywhere and that is where the bulk of the fish in the Seward harvest are caught. If you look at what is caught off the beaches in Seward, the beach fishery has gone down considerably since we lost hot water to our two hatcheries in 2005. That is clear when you look at the data. But that is not the only reason that it is going down and has been going down. There is more intercept out there with the boats. There are far more boats out there now than in the 80’s and a lot of people remember the good old days.
A:How much of the fish caught in the Seward-area beach fisheries are hatchery fish?
D:About 80% of the fish caught off the beach are hatchery fish.
A:You mentioned that you lost hot water to the two state-operated facilities. In fact, you were interviewed for the following article published September 3, 2010, by Heidi Zemach, “Where Have All the Silvers Gone?” with the online publication, The Seward City News. She writes:
The two aging state hatcheries also are having major troubles with smolt production that won’t get fixed for a couple of years. Those hatcheries, one near Fort Richardson, the other near Elmendorf, have been releasing smaller, less hardy Coho smolt into the various systems. Beginning in 2005, after the military bases’power plants were decommissioned, the hatcheries lost the warm water (warmed by the plants) that they had used to rear silvers. Prior to 2005 they could raise smolt to the proper size for release in a single year. In cold water, it took two years to rear them to releasable sizebut they still were smaller, less hardy and less likely to survive their journey, Bosch said. The state hatcheries also experienced problems with diseases.
Next year, ADF&G will begin putting eggs into a new state hatchery, which is scheduled to be built, and running by 2012. That hatchery will have better, more efficient warm- water technology, and closed water systems that can contain and limit diseases from spreading, Bosch said. The results, he said, should be more fish growth, and a higher output of smolt.
A:Why do you think those power plants were decommissioned?
D:I don’t know. Those decisions were made at the Pentagon. That’s why those hatcheries were built where they were, because we had access to “free” hot water.
A:I think it is very interesting, the unforeseen consequences of government activity, such as building a base, then having everything build up around the base, only then to shut down the base and to severely cripple many of the activities that are in place, only because the base was there to begin with.
A:What is the progress of the new state hatchery?
D:This year, 2013 will be the first year we release the first fish from the new hatchery, and they won’t return until 2014. Despite upcoming uknown marine conditions with this first release, we expect a considerably better survival rate than with the old state hatcheries, no doubt about that.
A:What sort of marine conditions would be optimal, for the increased survival of these smolts?
D:We don’t have a good handle on what those conditions are, that lead to good survival, aside from an abundance of food. What I would do if I was you, there was one year when we had a tremendous survival rate; 2004. If you can find out what the marine conditions in 2004 were, that would give you an important indicator.
There are a few charter operators that I know around here and I always ask them how many of the little silver smolts they were catching. Come August if they are catching a lot of them, we can expect the next year to be big.
A:Do you think the sustainability efforts here in Alaska are successful? Do you think that the declines in fisheries are more a result of habitat degradation or overfishing?
D:Yes I do. Alaska has a pristine habitat. One of the factors to consider in the decline of especially king salmon stocks in Alaska is a result of a decline in the marine environment, not the fresh water environment. There are some conditions out here right now that don’t favor salmonids, but it does in the lower 48. We have seen this happen before. This is not the first time that this has happened in the last century. It happened once in the late 1920s and again in the late 1960s, early 1970s. Right about the time we started firing up the hatcheries. The hatcheries were in fact, started as a result of that. And then the conditions changed again to favor salmon in Alaska. A lot of people call it the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and when it doesn’t favor salmon, it favors shellfish, and vice versa. It is a change in the temperature regime in the Pacific Ocean spanning over 20-30 years. What we see is if our salmon stocks in Alaska go in the tank, our crabs come back strong, and most often our salmon stocks will correlate inversely with salmon stocks in the lower 48. That is, if our stocks are depressed, theirs are booming.
I have a brother who went fishing out of central California August 2012 trolling for king salmon and he caught eight in one day!
A:According to Northwest Fisheries Science Center:
“Hatcheries have the potential to assist in the conservation of wild stocks, but they also pose some risks. At this time, scientists still have many questions about the extent to which hatchery programs enhance or threaten the survival of wild populations. Additional research and investigation is needed.” –last modified 2006
D:I think that is absolutely true. There are a couple things that happen with these mass hatchery releases. Just look at Prince William Sound the salmon fry are competing with herring fry for food, and then we saw the salmon fry eating the herring fry and that is why the herring stocks have not come back since the Valdez oil spill. Almost all hatchery fish in Alaska are now tracked by markings on their otoliths. An otolith lab is constantly taking samples to monitor the composition of the fishery, to help allow wild stocks get through to their native streams amidst the hatchery stocks. Overall I think the impact will be relatively low. Brood stocks are made to mimic the wild as much as possible.
A:What do you think the next few years have in store for Seward?
D:If you just look at silver salmon, the silver salmon catch in Seward is number one in the state almost every year, despite having endured a substantial decrease in smolt production at the state hatcheries. I think it is positive with the new hatchery release coming up. I am really looking forward to it. The hatcheries have been struggling since 2005 to release quality smolts, because of the loss of hot water.
A:What do you think Seward can do to ensure our position as the silver salmon capitol of the world?
D:Our hatchery right now is not at full capacity. I’ve asked that question, what can we do to increase our capacity for places like Seward, and everyone higher up than me is aware. The only restraint is money. It’s not like we have to start up a new hatchery. We don’t need to heat up any additional water tanks, so the additional cost is marginal; just add fish and food. But the sport fish division is hurting right now for money. Since the recession started, people are buying less fishing supplies, licenses, and permits and we are not getting as much of the tax money back to us. So money and time.
After concluding my interview I was left feeling half full and half empty. Half full, because Dan remains very optimistic about Alaskan fisheries and the smolts to be released from the new state hatchery this spring. In addition, knowing that people like Dan have dedicated their lives to protecting one of the greatest natural resources the world has to offer in conjunction with the concept of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, that the salmon stocks are simply shifting in size and location as a result of naturally occurring fluctuations in the temperatures of the ocean and not necessarily overfishing or habitat degradation, have given me a greater sense of hope for the future. But also half empty, because it is clear that the actions of governments have an array of unforeseen and unintended consequences, such as the decommissioning of the power plants that supplied the power to heat the water at the hatcheries, to produce the biggest best fish possible, to hopefully and ultimately increase the overall abundance of food resources, which would bring the cost of living down and better the lives of everyone.
To the question of what happened to the silver salmon, it seems the future is a bright one, so long as marine conditions improve. It certainly would be nice to see the hatchery receive increased levels of funding to bring it to full capacity.
Now the big question: What were the marine conditions in 2004 that led to such a great 2005 season for salmon?