State of the Salmon

Recap: State of the Salmon: Presentation and

Panel Discussion

   Six years ago, Trout Unlimited Alaska hosted a Chinook salmon panel in Anchorage. This coincided with a state mandate and funds designed to study the dwindling numbers of king salmon being seen throughout the state. Recently TU, along with Kenai Peninsula College, hosted a similar presentation and panel discussion which we called “State of the Salmon,” designed to see where we are today and what we might do in the future to attempt to keep our salmon healthy. The evening started with a presentation by Dr. Peter Westley, professor of fisheries with the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. This was followed by a panel that included Dr. Westley, along with Sue Mauger, Science and Executive Director with Cook Inletkeeper, and Adam Reimer, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. What we heard was not necessarily encouraging, especially for Chinook.

   At the panel six years ago, there were still a few bright spots as far as king salmon were concerned. Bristol Bay’s mighty Nushagak River as well as a few other Western Alaska streams were still seeing acceptable returns of this iconic fish, and it was believed, or hoped, that what we were experiencing elsewhere around the state was just a natural downturn and that numbers would soon rebound. Unfortunately, that rebound has not occurred, and in fact, those streams, like the Nushagak, have followed suit with the other river systems throughout the state and the Pacific Northwest. Reasons for the decline of Chinook and in many cases chum salmon vary, making it difficult for scientists to pinpoint a single cause. There are likely many. One is climate change and rising water temperatures. Intertidal zones in the ocean as well as freshwater environments have continued to see drastic increases in water temperature. Westley used the Yukon River, where stocks have plummeted and where much of his research has occurred, as an example. The Yukon he described as “historically warm,” with fish showing classic signs of heat stress, and in the summer of 2019 even experiencing massive pre-spawn die-offs.

   Another factor in declining populations may be ocean carrying capacity. Hatcheries have been proliferating, especially pink and chum hatcheries not only in the US but in Russia and Japan as well. These hatcheries have been releasing millions of fish that compete for food with wild salmon. The ocean, once thought to have unlimited capacity, actually has limited ability to produce enough food for all and some species may be suffering as a result. That competition with other fish, along with increased predation, may in many cases also be leading to smaller sized fish returning to spawn, even in seemingly healthy populations. Studies are continually showing declining size, Westley pointed out, something he maintains should be an important part of the conversation. Larger fish, particularly larger females, produce more eggs and larger eggs. “The point is that you have disproportionate declines of reproductive potential if you have declines in body size,” he said. “Really what that’s suggesting is the importance of big, fat, old female fish.”

Westley also pointed out during the presentation that another concern has been an increase in infection rates for Icthyophonus, a naturally occurring pathogenic parasite found in harvested salmon. He said it isn’t clear where exactly the fish are encountering the parasite, but in 2020, almost half of Yukon salmon surveyed showed signs of the infection.

If that isn’t enough, salmon are facing increased predation from large marine mammals, such as seals, sea lions and killer whales. With increased protections for natural predators there are now more of them than ever out there preying upon these fish. There is also the issue of human predation, which takes many forms, but which may be of most concern when it comes to bycatch by the trawl industry. This was a question brought up almost immediately during the panel. While panelists agreed bycatch was not the only factor, “the smoking gun,” it was important to take what is being caught by trawlers into account, especially at times of low abundance. Should the trawl fleet be catching and wasting Chinook and chum salmon when many river systems are completely shut down and subsistence users in many cases are not allowed to harvest any?

When searching for some bright spots in all of this, we can look to increased populations of sockeye in places like Bristol Bay, which has seen record returns in recent years. Here climate change may actually be affecting conditions positively, at least for the time being. Having a still intact, very diverse ecosystem is also a major factor in that fishery remaining one of our brightest regions for salmon. With a system so large and as yet pristine, we have true diversity, where if one stream has a downturn others in the system tend to make up for it. Conserving this diversity, here and elsewhere, is a key component in maintaining resiliency in a more challenging and uncertain future.


   So, what can we do to try and stave off or at least attempt to maintain our current salmon runs around the state?


-The first and easiest step is to protect and maintain in-stream habitat, and advocate for curbing development in riparian zones.


-Next is to get involved with restoration and rehabilitation efforts on local streams, repairing riparian areas, planting vegetation, setting habitat fencing, efforts that many local groups, such as TU, are currently undertaking, often with the help of our volunteers.


-Educate yourself on the issues, on the environmental front, the politics, the Board of Fish process, and see what actions we might take to influence or even change the process in which fisheries are dealt with.


-Advocate on the political front. Unfortunately, our politics and environmental challenges are inextricably entwined, and our politicians are not always hearing what scientists are saying. Advocate for more protections for our fisheries, more funds for research and restoration.