Disastrous harvest for pink salmon

Biologists puzzled as to why harvest is lowest since the 1970s
  • Pink salmon showed up at a rate of about a third of what was forecast in the preseason for Alaska, leaving biologists scratching their heads, fishermen with empty nets and the governor seeking a federal disaster declaration. (Photo/File/AP)

Around the state, biologists are unsure of what led to the lowest pink salmon harvest since the 1970s in a season that led Gov. Bill Walker to seek a disaster declaration from the federal government to bail out beleaguered pink fishermen.

“We caught 39 million pinks this year,” said Forrest Bowers, the Commercial Fisheries Division director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The department forecasted a harvest of 90 million fish between. Bowers said he had to comb records back to 1977 to find a year that bad.

“Certainly one of the worst harvests we’ve had in the last 35 years,” he said.

In terms of overall value, pinks salmon pale beside sockeye, Alaska’s most valuable salmon species. In Bristol Bay, the world’s largest natural sockeye run, fishermen in 2016 harvested an estimated ex-vessel value of $156.2 million, which is 40 percent above the 20-year average of $111 million.

Walker, urged on by Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, requested that U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declare the season a disaster. This would pour millions in disaster relief funding for Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Lower Cook Inlet and Chignik, all areas with high dependence on pink salmon.

Prince William Sound is almost entirely hatchery-produced pink salmon while the other fisheries saw their wild pink salmon runs decline.

ADFG biologists note that inaccurate pink salmon forecasts are common.

“If you look back historically, ADFG has a really poor track record forecasting pink salmon,” said Andy Piston, a biologist at the ADFG Ketchikan office. “The bottom line is they never worked well.”

Unlike sockeye salmon, pink salmon have less predictable migration patterns and life cycles.

“One of the big problems with pink salmon is they’re all the same age. They all go out to sea at the same time and come back at the same time,” said Piston.

This makes estimating returns difficult. Biologists can determine age and sibling relationships between which sockeye salmon return to spawn in a given year and how many will come back in a following year.

“For pink salmon, I think that’s why there’s a very long track record of very poor forecast,” said Piston.

The life cycle and age composition of pink salmon create the even/odd year split pinks are known for. In North America, pink salmon return in force every odd year — both 2013 and 2015 set records for pink salmon returns of both hatchery and wild stocks.

This pattern could be at the root of 2016’s abysmal return, according to ADFG biologist Leon Schaul. Available literature points to variations in the intensity in these cycles.

“In Puget Sound, there are hardly any pink salmon in even years,” said Schaul. “In the Kamchatka Peninsula, the east side is extremely odd year dominant. On the west side, it used to also be odd year and it switched in the early 80s. Those are huge producing areas.

“The east side had a larger pink catch than all North America. Pink salmon generally in the (Gulf of Alaska), used to be even year dominant in the 1960 and ‘70s. They switched in the late ‘70s. Both cycles were strong in the ‘90s. In the last few years the odd year dominance has intensified. So that’s kind of a background factor, it being an even year now.”

Most agreed that some kind of marine condition is the likely culprit for the miserable pink salmon return in 2016. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration performs studies on pink salmon that show a steady correlation between how many fry swim out to ocean and how many return two years later.

“It kind of points to something a little more off shore,” said Schaul. “The NOAA surveys have been amazingly accurate as far as surveys go.”

Schaul does consider that warmer ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska have something to do with poor returns, but pinks have been performing better in warmer water since the turn of the millennium.

“Pink salmon have been generally thriving under warmer conditions,” Schaul said. “Pink salmon, across the Pacific, have been getting more abundant. Even as the general climate pattern changed…they’ve been doing quite well, with two of the biggest returns in history in 2013 and 2015.”

Warmer waters could mean changes in food chain or any one of a thousand different variables. There are simply too many to consider, and the kind of work NOAA performs may not be an option for ADFG.

Offshore work is expensive. In desperate budgetary times, the comparatively meager commercial value of pink salmon simply doesn’t warrant the kind of money it would take to learn more about marine conditions.

“Trying to pinpoint what exactly the factor is probably impossible without spending more money than all the governments of the world have combined,” Piston laughed. “The NOOA program…It is expensive. But that’s the kind of thing you have to do. In this budget situation, the idea that we’re going to start some millions of dollar ocean research program is fairly unlikely.”

Piston cautioned that although the harvest numbers are terrible for the last few decades, if you stretch them over time they bend closer to normal.

“The overall harvest for Southeast is 18 million,” said Piston. “It seems pretty terrible, but the average harvest in the 1960s was 13.5 million. In the 1970s was 10.3 million. Then it goes to 30 million in ‘80s, 50 million in the ‘90s. Since statehood, it’s about 22 million. So this year, it’s terrible for the last few decades, but if you look at the entire time series since statehood, it’s average to poor.”

10/06/2016 - 9:20am