A new report shows that Alaska’s salmon hatcheries created one fourth of the economic value of the state’ total salmon harvest between 2012 and 2016 along with about 4,700 jobs statewide.

McDowell Group, the Juneau-based economics consulting firm, based the report on eight of the state’s largest hatcheries, documenting $600 million in economic value. The estimate of jobs was done on an annualized basis, or how seasonal jobs are calculated as if they were year-round.

According to the report about 2,200 jobs in Prince William Sound can be traced to the region’s salmon hatcheries operated by Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. based in Cordova and Valdez Fisheries Development Corp. in Valdez, which mainly support wild pink salmon runs.

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In Southeast Alaska, about 2,000 jobs are related to hatcheries in that region that mainly support chum salmon runs. Another 500 jobs created by hatcheries are in other parts of the state, McDowell Group said.

The report, sponsored by the eight private nonprofit hatcheries included in the study, was released as the state Board of Fisheries considers proposals submitted by sportfish interests to curtail hatchery production, citing concerns on the impact of hatchery fish on wild salmon stocks. “Over the study period, commercial fishermen harvested an annual average of 222 million pounds of hatchery-produced salmon worth $120 million in ex-vessel value,” or payments to commercial harvesters, McDowell Group said in the report. Additional income was reported in wages to hatchery workers and others. “The economic footprint of Alaska’s hatcheries includes $95 million in labor income associated with commercial fishing, $82 million in labor income associated with processing, and $25 million connected to hatchery operations,” the report said. The state’s hatcheries support sport as well as commercial fisheries. The Valdez Fisheries Development Corp. supports a late summer and fall silver salmon fishery in Valdez popular with sports fishermen and businesses. The state-operated Gulkana hatchery near Paxson, on the Richardson Highway, supports sockeye salmon fisheries important for sport as well as commercial sockeye fisheries in the Copper River region.“As a percentage of statewide sport-caught fish, hatchery-origin salmon accounted for 17 percent of sport coho harvests, 13 percent of sport sockeye harvests, and 8 percent of sport Chinook harvests,” McDowell Group said in its report. The report cites further economic, social, and cultural benefits in the form of personal use and subsistence harvests. One of the greatest benefits of hatcheries, however, is in bringing more stability to a salmon industry that is cyclical and high risk. In some years of low cycles in wild salmon, hatcheries produced as much as 48 percent of the statewide harvest. In Prince William Sound hatcheries have supplied up to 80 percent of the harvest. Recent years have been much lower. Meanwhile, the unique hatchery system in Alaska is managed, and permitted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to be compatible with the sustainable productivity of wild stocks, and a long-term research program has been underway since 2011 addressing concerns about interactions between hatchery and wild stocks. ADF&G data indicate that years with high hatchery-origin pink salmon harvests are also years in which wild pink salmon harvests are high. Proponents of further limiting the hatcheries cite concerns about impacts of hatchery pink salmon on other salmon related to ocean carrying capacity – a case of dueling science.

Scientists have actually been debating the issue of ocean capacity for decades, and for now have no hard evidence either way that the North Pacific is approaching its carrying capacity. One Russian marine scientist said, “trying to define ocean carrying capacity is like trying to catch a moonbeam in a jar.”

Clearly there are more salmon in the North Pacific, not just from Alaska but Japan, Korea, and Russia, and some researchers believe that climate change and ocean warming could be creating effects exacerbated by increased salmon density. However, other researchers have doubts about significant adverse effects.

In a recent paper submitted to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, two retired NOAA ocean researchers, Alex Wertheimer and William Heard, said they doubt juvenile pink salmon take food from juvenile king salmon. The king salmon’s diet is different than pinks due to the depth at which they feed, the two wrote.

The authors also find no correlation between the recent decline of king salmon with cyclical increases in wild and hatchery pink salmon. They argue the North Pacific marine biomass is so large that incremental increases of Alaska hatchery salmon have only minor effects.

An intergovernmental organization, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, which aims to promote the conservation of anadromous stocks in the North Pacific Ocean, is continuing work on a multi-year study of the question. The anadromous fish commission includes Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the U.S.

The state created its hatchery program in the 1970s to rebuild salmon fisheries after a virtual collapse that occurred under federal management in the years before statehood.

When Alaska became a state in 1959, the fledgling state government immediately instituted science-based fisheries management using sustained yield principles. Improved management helped, but coastal communities and the state economy lagged as the slow recovery process took place.

When salmon runs had failed to recover by the early 1970s, the legislature took two actions. First, it enacted a limited-entry program to control overfishing. Second, in partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, it created the framework for the state hatchery program.

The latter was part of a plan to supplement wild stocks and offset wide swings in natural runs, particularly pink salmon. Learning from the mistakes of the Lower 48, the program requires hatcheries to be sited away from naturally-occurring salmon stocks, requires the use of only wild brood stock, and other steps to protect wild stocks. Planning and oversight is a public process driven by representatives of regional user groups and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is responsible for permitting. Stabilizing the salmon fisheries made it possible for harvesters to make a living, for processors to remain open, and for coastal communities to develop stable economies.

Nearly 50 years later, the state’s salmon enhancement program has helped to grow statewide salmon harvests since the lean years before statehood. From a salmon harvest of 25 million in 1959 Alaska now routinely has catches of over 100 million, supporting harvesters and fishery-dependent businesses in the state.

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