What are the fish telling us

the story of the world’s largest wild salmon fishery

Salmon, often known as the King of Fish, was once one of the most abundant creatures in the sea, dominating the waters in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately it’s impossible to swim upstream forever, and in recent centuries, as industrialized human development spread across much of Europe and the United States, salmon populations decreased dramatically.

Pacific salmon
Chinook salmon
Chum salmon
Coho salmon
Sockeye salmon
Masu salmon
Pink salmon

Although now extinct in many of the rivers where they once bred, Pacific salmon still have something of a hold on their kingdom in the West. The five species of salmon that reign in the Pacific Northwest are the Pink, Chum, Sockeye, Coho, and Chinook salmon. The lesser-known Masu salmon inhabits the Western Pacific, off the coast of East Asia. Together, these six species account for nearly all of the wild salmon eaten in the world.

Atlantic salmon haven’t been as fortunate as their Pacific kin. Due largely to human development in the form of dams, pollution, and overfishing, Atlantic salmon populations have plummeted in the past three centuries. The result is that a species once hundreds of millions strong is now listed as endangered. With a few small exceptions, all of the Atlantic salmon eaten today is raised in a fish farm; in fact, about 75% of the salmon eaten worldwide is farmed fish.

The Atlantic salmon

Farmed salmon
diet

Fishmeal

Fish oil

Antibiotics

Pellets

Percentage of salmon we eat

Wild salmon
diet

Krill

Zooplankton

Sardine

Herring

Farmed

Wild

What are the fish telling us: the story of the world’s largest wild salmon fishery

The myth goes that when Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492, he and his crew couldn’t sleep because of the perpetual whack of sea turtles bumping against the hull of their ship. Now, 500 years later, nearly every species of sea turtle is listed as endangered. In fact, so many plants and animals have become endangered or extinct in recent years, that researchers and environmentalists have started referring to it as the sixth mass extinction.

New fishing technologies and poor fisheries management have turned the ocean into a shadow of what it once was. By some estimates, stocks of many large oceangoing fish have been reduced by 80% to 90%; sea turtles, many species of sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish and toothfish (sold as Chilean Seabass) are just some of the groups threatened by overfishing. While there are still millions of fish in the sea, we are killing off too many of them way too fast. But for every rule there is an exception.

In his book Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg writes that, “when it comes to salmon, Alaska is a little like a wise old man sitting on a far northern perch, overlooking the destruction that humanity has wrought farther south.” Alaska contains one of the world’s last and largest sustainable wild salmon fisheries, with hundreds of millions of fish returning year after year to swim up their natal streams to breed. Other examples of sustainable fisheries can be found in Canada, New Zealand and Iceland, however none compare to the size and scope of Alaska’s wild salmon fisheries.

(source: fao.org)

If Alaska is the country of salmon, Bristol Bay is its lifeblood; every summer in Bristol Bay 6,000 fishermen in 1,600 boats catch over 30 million salmon, roughly 10% of the world’s wild salmon harvest. When Obama traveled to Alaska earlier this month to highlight the social, economic and geopolitical impact of climate change, he visited Bristol Bay. Standing near the Bay waters, Obama spoke to a group of fishermen, saying “[Bristol Bay] represents not just a critical way of life that has to be preserved, but it also represents one of the most important natural resources that the United States has.”

This past summer, I was one of the 6,000 fishermen sacrificing back, arms, hands, and fingers to harvest some of the most environmentally friendly salmon on earth. During six weeks of work, as I ripped salmon out of the gillnet, the smell of blood and diesel in the air, I began to understand what has kept the Bay sustainable in the face of "ever growing" environmental threat: an understanding by both the fishermen and the state of Alaska that environmental protection equates to the protection of the livelihood.

Where Do All the Salmon Come From?

I grew up in New York City eating bagels and lox and baked salmon with dill. Never once did I wonder where the bright orange meat came from. In a world where salmon lie on ice in neat fillets next to rows of plastic wrapped steaks and drumsticks, it can be hard to remember that these creatures used to be wild. And some of them still are.

Three hundred years ago, the coastal waters from New York to Northern Canada teemed with wild salmon. By some estimates, Atlantic salmon populations may have been as large as hundreds of millions of fish. Sadly, these numbers are now greatly diminished. Because salmon return from the ocean to their natal streams to mate and lay eggs, and because they require clean, free-flowing and oxygen-rich rivers, they were some of the first fish affected by human development. As early Americans built dams and deforested riverbanks, they also systematically destroyed the breeding grounds for Atlantic salmon.

By the 1800s, nearly every strain of salmon that inhabited the rivers of North America had all but disappeared. Still, there continued to be salmon that bred in northern waters (Nova Scotia, think “Nova Lox”) until the 1950s, when a few "over eager" Finnish and Danish fishermen discovered the waters off the coast of Greenland where adult salmon congregated. News of the fishing grounds spread, and soon Norwegian and Swedish fishermen joined the hunt. In the span of a few years, these fishermen lay waste to the remaining Atlantic salmon population. The result is that a species that was once hundreds of millions strong was reduced to a mere five hundred thousand. In the years since, as commercial fishing for Atlantic salmon has largely been stopped, salmon numbers have grown. Still, population levels remain despairingly low, with the species remaining on the endangered list.

(Distribution of all salmon species worldwide; Source: FAO FishFinder, 9/10/15)

With a few small exceptions, all of the Atlantic salmon eaten today are raised in a fish farm. In fact, since Norwegians began experimenting with farmed salmon in the 1960s, it has become the most widely consumed farmed finfish in the world.

(Compiled by Lucas Isakowitz using data from FAO FishState)

Pacific salmon fared only slightly better than their Atlantic counterparts; as infrastructure was built on the West Coast, lakes, rivers and streams quickly became inhospitable. In California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, salmon are believed to be extinct in 40% of the rivers where they were known to exist and highly diminished in the runs that remain.

The one exception to the wreckage is Alaska. Because of its insanely localized and meticulous in-season management process, Alaska contains one of the world’s last and largest sustainable wild salmon fisheries, with hundreds of millions of fish returning year after year. In all, Alaska represents about 40% of the world’s total wild salmon harvest.

(Compiled by Lucas Isakowitz using FAO Aquatic Species Fact Sheet)

The world’s most valuable salmon fishery

When commercial fishing began in Bristol Bay in the 1880s, fishermen used 25-foot sailboats and hauled nets in by hand. By the beginning of the 1920s, about 20 canneries and nearly 1,100 sail-powered gillnet boats were harvesting and processing close to 20 million salmon annually. By the 1950s, powerboats 32-feet in length had replaced sailboats and large seafood corporations had financed the building of canneries to process the ever-larger harvests. Advanced fishing methods, a weak federal management system, and seafood corporations that had few ties to Alaska all contributed to overfishing, causing salmon populations to decline at alarming rates. By 1955, Bristol Bay’s salmon run shrank to a despairingly low level, causing it to be declared a federal disaster. It was clear that if the status quo continued, the once abundant salmon runs would become a thing of the past.

Luckily the situation soon took a turn for the better.

Once Alaska gained statehood in 1959, the state immediately took over management of its fisheries. The newly formed Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) put the canneries in check, banning the use of fish traps and other harmful fishing practices, and completely reinvented the old federal management system. The ADF&G pioneered a fisheries management style known as in-season escapement goal-based management, which has since become the gold standard for fisheries management. While most fisheries work under a quota system, where the number of fish to be harvested is determined before the start of the fishing season, in Alaska the ADF&G tracks salmon sizes during the fishing season and adjusts harvest levels based on population strength. Depending on in-season counts and biodiversity among fish, ADF&G managers determine on a daily basis which fishing grounds are open to commercial fishermen.

In the years following 1959, Alaska’s salmon population steadily returned to healthy levels. The size of the 2015 Bristol Bay salmon run, which was the largest in two decades, is a testament to the success of Alaska’s fisheries management.

I recently asked the management coordinator for Bristol Bay, Bert L. Lewis, what he thought of the long-term outlook for the fishery, how sustainable is sustainable, how long would Alaska’s waters be rich with salmon. He answered: “Statewide, the salmon fisheries are sustainable indefinitely. Baring an environmental catastrophe, Alaska’s waters will be fishable indefinitely.”

(Source: ADF&G website)

The fishermen themselves also play a vital role in the preservation of Bristol Bay, taking pride in the Bay’s sustainability and standing together against any developments that might endanger the salmon’s delicate ecosystem. In the 1950s, many fishermen opposed the introduction of powerboats, fearing that with the advanced technology the Bay would become polluted and overfished. More recently, the fishermen pressured the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a study on the potential impact of a proposed mine near the salmon natal waters; as a result, the Pebble Mine, a multinational project with huge financial backing, is currently stalled in litigation.

As one captain put it, “The fishing industry is working on a renewable resource that we’ve been harvesting for generations and generations of people and many more generations of salmon… [the Pebble Mine issue] boils down to a renewable resource [harvesting salmon] versus a non-renewable resource [extracting copper from the earth].”

The importance of the environment

When Obama wanted to highlight the impact of climate change, he traveled to Alaska, a region that has warmed at twice the average rate over the past fifty years. The impacts of global warming have already been felt in Alaska, with earlier springs, shrinking sea ice, glacier retreat and the reduction of permafrost. Another impact of the changing climate is increasing ocean acidification, which is of serious concern for Alaska’s commercial fisheries. It its most recent report, the International Panel on Climate Change stated that “climate change is projected to undermine food security… marine species redistribution and marine biodiversity reduction in sensitive regions will challenge the sustained provision of fisheries productivity and other ecosystem services.”

I asked Lewis what he though about these issues. He told me that the impacts of climate change, including ocean acidification, are on ADF&G’s radar, but he seemed hopeful. He explained that “while we [ADF&G] might not be able to control large scale environmental factors that may affect the fisheries, we are more focused than ever on this year, on meeting our goals, on using our best science to protect this year’s fishery and anticipate next years runs to keep our fisheries sustainable.”

One of the primary difficulties of getting the world-at-large to mobilize against issues that imperil the environment is the lack of direct stake in the issue. Climate change consistently ranks lowest in priority among American voters; when given the option, most people will opt to put money towards education, healthcare, defense or a myriad of other infrastructure projects. In his book entitled Reason in a Dark Time, Dale Jamieson explores the psychology of inaction, arguing that humans are slow to react to the problem of climate change because they don’t accurately perceive its dangers; he writes, “we mobilize huge resources around highly publicized cases of little girls falling into wells while we do comparatively little to save children when they are the invisible victims of policy choices.” In other words, because we don’t see the victims of climate change, we don’t act against climate change.

During the fishing season, the fisherman will often curse at the ADF&G for not giving them more fishing time, to open up this river or that river for fishing, or to lower unrealistic escapement figures. But pervasive is a deeper understanding that the management of the fishery is necessary. The ADF&G and the fishermen of Bristol Bay don’t have to puzzle themselves with thought experiments of little girls falling down wells to understand the importance of preserving the environment. If the Bay is polluted, overfished, or if the delicate balance that keeps the salmon coming back is disturbed, the fishermen will loose their way of life. And so the fishermen are forced to come together in solidarity to protect their own. It is this selfishness on the part of Alaska and the fishermen that has kept the largest salmon run in the world sustainable in the face of ever-higher environmental threat.