More than 100 researchers and three dozen projects are underway to find clues as to why Alaska’s Chinook salmon production has declined since 2007.
The ambitious effort marks the start of a state-backed, five-year, $30 million Chinook Salmon Research Initiative that includes 12 major river systems from Southeast Alaska to the Yukon. And while it will be years before the project yields definitive data, the scientists have pinned down some early findings.
“It’s not the fresh water production of the juvenile Chinook that is the reason this decline is occurring, it’s being driven by poor marine survival,” said Ed Jones, the lead for the Initiative and Sport Fish Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We don’t know why, but once these juvenile Chinook salmon are entering the ocean, they are not surviving at the rates they once did.”
Seafood is by far Alaska’s top export, and as it heads overseas, global politics play a big role in making sales sink or swim. That dynamic took center stage last week when Russia banned imports of foods for one year from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Norway and Australia in retaliation for sanctions imposed due to its aggressive actions in Ukraine.
It is a direct hit to Alaska, which last year exported nearly 20 million pounds of seafood to Russia, valued at more than $60 million. The primary product it hurts is pink and chum salmon roe; Russia is also a growing market for Alaska pollock surimi.
“After Japan, Russia is our largest market for salmon roe,” explained Alexa Tonkovich, International Program Director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). “Japan takes about $125 million worth of salmon roe and Russia takes about $46 million (more than 7 million pounds).
As millions of Fraser River sockeye salmon head for spawning beds polluted by a brew of metal toxins oozing from the Mount Polley gold/copper mine disaster in British Columbia, Republican candidates vying for U.S. Senate want environmental regulators to butt out of Alaska’s mining development decisions.
The three men hoping to unseat Mark Begich faced off last week for a Rural Alaska Republican Candidates forum hosted by KYUK/Bethel.
To questions posed by moderator Ben Matheson, candidates Joe Miller, Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan all slammed the Environmental Protection Agency for its plans to impose strict water requirements aimed at blocking the proposed Pebble Mine. Each candidate also agreed with legislation recently introduced in the Senate (by Murkowski and two other senators) that says the EPA cannot use its authority under the Clean Water Act “pre-emptively or retroactively.”
Fishermen won’t need special permits to hose off their decks, thanks to a bill moving through the U.S. Senate. That’s garnered a big sigh of relief from harvesters across the nation, and kudos to a rare show of bipartisanship by coastal lawmakers; notably Senators Begich of Alaska and Marco Rubio of Florida.
“The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act extends a moratorium that was already granted to the commercial fishing industry from 2008,” explained Brett Veerhusen, executive director of Seafood Harvesters of America. Verrhusen has been watch-dogging the discharge bill that comes up every couple of years. “It would extend this moratorium indefinitely so commercial fishing vessels don’t have to apply for a ridiculous discharge permit every time rain falls onto your deck and flows overboard. That’s incidental discharge to the normal operation of a vessel. So it just cuts the red tape that fishermen would have to incur.”
Nowhere in the world do people have more say in shaping fisheries policy than in Alaska. While the outcomes might get mixed rants and reviews, no one is ever denied the chance to state ideas, concerns and gripes to decision-makers.
Several opportunities are available right now:
First off, a revised draft of the Magnuson-Stevens Act was just released for public review and comment. The MSA is the primary federal law that governs all fisheries management in U.S. waters; it is undergoing reauthorization targeted for completion at the end of this year. Comments will be taken until the bill moves through the Senate to the full Congress for final action. Find more information at the Department of Commerce website.
It came as no surprise when the first price postings last week tanked for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon to $1.20/lb, with an extra 15 cents for chilled fish. That compares to a base price of $1.50 a pound last year.
The Bristol Bay catch topped 28 million reds by Friday — 11 million more than projected — and the fish were still coming. (Alaska’s total sockeye salmon catch as of July 18 was over 37 million and counting.)
Ocean chemists are calling it “revolutionary technology” as unmanned gliders track how melting glaciers may be intensifying corrosive waters in Prince William Sound.
“It’s been hugely successful. We’ve flown these things all over inside and outside of Prince William Sound,” said Jeremy Mathis, director of the Ocean Environment Research Division at the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle. Mathis is also an affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks and oversees studies at Newport, Ore.
Mathis explained that, in different regions of the world, natural processes (like glacial melt) are worsening the effects of ocean acidification so that a region like Prince William Sound may already be preconditioned.
With salmon fisheries going on every summer all across Alaska, you might wonder why so much attention is focused on Bristol Bay. The answer can be summed up in two words: sockeye salmon.
Bristol Bay is home to the largest red salmon runs in the world, and sockeye is Alaska’s most valuable salmon fishery by far. In most years, well over one-third of Alaska’s total earnings from salmon fishing stem from Bristol Bay.
Salmon takes center stage in Alaska every summer, but there are plenty of other fisheries also going on all across the state.
The world’s biggest sockeye salmon run is expected to surge into Bristol Bay any day, where a catch of about 17 million reds is projected. Elsewhere, the annual summer troll fishery in Southeast Alaska kicked off July 1, with a target of just over 166,000 Chinook salmon.
In crab fisheries, Dungeness fishing began June 15 in Southeast, where a harvest of 2.25 million pounds is expected. The region’s golden king crab fishery will close on July 10, with a catch of about 234,000 pounds.
Uncertainty best sums up the mood as fishermen and processors await the world’s biggest sockeye salmon run at Bristol Bay. In fact, it’s being called the riskiest season in recent memory in the 2014 Sockeye Market Analysis, a biannual report done by the McDowell Group for the fishermen-run Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
As presaged by buyer pushback at seafood trade shows earlier this year in Boston and Brussels, for the first time since 2010, the starting price for the first sockeyes from Copper River took a $0.50 per pound dip. At an average of $3.50 per pounds, it was down 13 percent for fishermen from 2013.
“Probably more so than any recent year, processors are having pressure from both the buying side with more competition for fish in Bristol Bay, and on the selling side, where there is a very large sockeye forecast from the Fraser River (in British Columbia). That fishery takes place in August, well after Alaska’s sockeye fisheries are done,” said Andy Wink, Seafood Project Manager at McDowell Group.