At OBI Seafoods, a sprawling operation with outposts throughout Alaska, there’s all sorts of extra machinery for workers to master. At Whole Foods Market, there are new guidelines for purchasing salmon from wholesalers. And at Ivar’s, a fixture on Seattle’s waterfront for eight decades, the chef is sending back skimpy salmon delivered to his kitchen.
Behind all these changes is an alarming trend that’s been building for years: The giant schools of wild Pacific salmon that can turn southeast Alaska’s ice-cold waters into a brilliant orange blur are thinning out, and those that do survive are shrinking in size.
It’s the shrinking part that’s causing the biggest logistical snarl right now. Many salmon are so small they’ve thrown off OBI’s fish-sorting process and no longer meet the purchasing specifications at Whole Foods and culinary demands at Ivar’s. There, head chef Craig Breeden snaps photos of the fish next to his knife to illustrate their diminutive size before shipping them back.
“It’s very irritating when the supplier sends it to me and I see the size of these fillets,” he said. “In the last eight to 10 years, the salmon sizes have started to get smaller and smaller.”
These disruptions are, for now, more a nuisance than serious problem. But they almost certainly presage more costly changes to come and, much more importantly, raise alarm bells about the growing crisis in some key salmon populations that is being driven, according to many scientists, by climate change and more competition for food. Decades after the Atlantic cod fisheries collapsed, concern is now mounting among experts that wild Pacific salmon could face a similar fate.
“The whole thing is out of whack,” said Laurie Weitkamp, a U.S. fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Salmon managers are realizing that climate change is impacting their stocks and it is generally not favorable and it’s only going to get worse.”
Salmon are so vital that scientists call them a “keystone” species, since animals such as bears and eagles depend on them, and the fish indirectly spread nutrients into ecosystems including forests. A salmon’s life journey from freshwater streams to the ocean and back again to reproduce and die makes them especially vulnerable to warming temperatures and a shifting environment.
Alaskan salmon are getting smaller partly because they’re returning from the ocean at a younger age, though scientists don’t really know why. The trend is also playing out across the Pacific Rim, from the U.S. mainland and Canada to Russia and Japan.
“When the size and the numbers go down that’s a harbinger of change that is taken as a red flag among many scientists,” said Peter Westley of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, co-author of a study on salmon size published last year with the University of California Santa Cruz.