The scientists examined four of the five Pacific salmon species in Alaska. Chinook — pursued by anglers and valued by restaurants — had the biggest average decline, at 8%, compared with pre-1990 fish. All other species shrunk, with sockeye showing the smallest decline at 2.1%. The most rapid changes were in the past decade.
Dwindling sizes in other species signaled a fishery’s collapse, including Canada’s Atlantic cod three decades ago.
In Europe and New England, the memory of rivers teeming with wild Atlantic salmon is all but forgotten due to overfishing, habitat loss and dam construction that blocked spawning grounds, said David Montgomery, whose 2003 book “King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon” warns that the Pacific species could face the same fate. “Sadly, the book is still current.”
Agriculture, mining and other man-made interactions have sent Pacific salmon numbers plummeting in places including the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia-Snake River Basin. In some parts of Canada and the U.S., they’re endangered. Key runs in Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia province are seeing some of the worst years.
B.C.’s Fraser River had record low sockeye run sizes in three of the last five years, with last season setting a new low, said the Pacific Salmon Commission, which oversees management of the fish in the U.S. and Canada.
“We are seeing a march north on the declines and collapses of salmon fisheries,” said Guido Rahr, head of Portland, Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center. “Japan has almost no wild fish left. In parts of Russia, once massive salmon runs are collapsing due to overfishing.”
Russia and the U.S. make up 85% of the world’s remaining Pacific salmon.
Less weighty catches mean fewer dollars for the $2 billion industry. Last year’s haul garnered $295.2 million, down 56% from 2019, Alaska estimates show.
“Salmon is such a nuanced and interconnected species — one little tweak when they are young can make a big change,” said Arron Kallenberg, founder and chief executive officer of seafood retailer Wild Alaskan Co. “From an industry standpoint it certainty makes an impact.”
While salmon runs in some areas saw steep population declines, Bristol Bay — supplier of about half the world’s sockeye — has had booming harvests. Even so, signs of smaller fish abound, OBI Seafoods CEO Mark Palmer said.
Historically, 4-pound sockeye and larger — key for commercial fisheries — comprise as much as 70% of each season’s Bristol Bay catch, Palmer said. Today, those larger salmon are no more than half the catch.
“Your yields go down a little bit with smaller fish,” he said.
At southeast Alaska’s Klukwan village, 115 miles north of Juneau, fishing nets have told the tale of shrinking salmon for years.
“Something is out of whack in the ocean and we wish we knew a way to fix it,” said Jones Hotch Jr., a tribal council member of this community of 40 families along a river whose indigenous name means “winter container for salmon.”
They depend on annual salmon return, which is why Hotch Jr. is pushing for stronger environmental protections against mining and other threats to the Chilkat River.
“My drive for saving our river for salmon runs to the very marrow of my being,” the 70-year-old said. “I believe that when we save our salmon, we save and preserve our culture.©2021 Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC