Future of Salmon in Alaska
By Dan Paull
If you watch the news or pay any attention to things happening in the natural world, it may come as no surprise that our planet is changing. One thing is for sure, in the last 50 years it seems as if we are watching things change before our very eyes.
I seem to remember when I was a kid some 35 years ago that winter came earlier and stayed a little longer. Based on what I see today, winters are later and seem to be more fleeting. One day it is super sunny and 70 and then the next day it is 10 degrees and blowing snow. Our weather patterns have come to extremes.
Not only are we looking at severe changes in weather patterns, but we are also seeing populations of wildlife change right before our eyes. Since most places are warming in temperature, ice formation is not what it used to be. Because of that, it sounds like we are losing a large population of polar bears. Or are we? It is rare for animals in the natural world to cross-breed, however, since the ice has become scarce some polar bears have ventured more onto land and into Grizzly bear country. Years ago, there was “a” report of a hunter harvesting a crossbred “polargrizz.” As of recently, this has been reported several more times. This leaves us to question instead of losing a population could we be seeing evolution play out in Infront of our own eyes? Or is this a downward trend that has not completely unfolded?
I will tell you those two stories to lead into my next. The next, has a lot of variables at play to the tune of do we point the finger at evolution, or do we point the finger at man’s disaster? An even bigger question is what do we do?
When I was leaving Anchorage a couple of years ago, I stopped by a taxidermist to drop off a Sheefish to mount. It was not a monster “only 42”. While I was there, I got to know the taxidermist a little. They were closing the shop soon and moving to South Dakota. When I asked why the explanation I got was that there just is not any fish there anymore. If you just read that, you surely must be as shocked as I was when hearing their decision. As was explained to me by the taxidermist, in the 1980’s it was nothing for them to receive 20 or so King Salmon a year over 70lbs. Now she said if someone was to catch a single 40lber, they really did something special and none of those fish made it to the taxidermist. She went on to explain that sure there are salmon in the river and plenty to catch. Sometimes in recent history, however, it is continually less and less, and they are smaller than they used to be.
Alaska is the biggest state in the union. Its coastline is unbelievably long. When flying from Seattle to Anchorage it is aww inspiring to think about how many fish must live in that blue water of the Pacific Ocean. However, stepping back it is also clear that the fish are not alone. Seals, Wales, and much other marine wildlife call the Pacific home as well. However, there is one that has a significant impact.
To put into perspective what I am referring to, think about this just for a second. The town you live in I am sure has a grocery store and in that store, salmon filets are sold. Now zoom out to the city, zoom out to the county, zoom out to the state. And then the US. How many salmon filets are sold and consumed daily? Now multiply that by 365. It is amazing to me that we have been able to sustain our needs this long. However, the need and demand for salmon continue to grow. We still need to eat.
That said, Alaska closely monitors fish populations, consumption, and future need. Over the years it is no secret that many fisheries have seen fish populations decrease and some to the edge of existence in certain rivers. Because of this, in some areas restocking has assisted the wild populations; however, in many areas, and for some species supplemental stocking is not needed.
I purchased our lodge in 2018 and since then have gotten to know one of the locals well. He has told me many times that you can always tell how healthy a river system is by how bad it smells come late August. The massive stench should be coming from the rotting and dying chum salmon. The dying salmon feeds the entire system from eggs, fry and even decaying body matter. It all plays an integral part in feeding fish, eagles, bears, and even the trees. As he has exclaimed to me many times before, the Holitna and Kuskokwim rivers were once EXTREMELY healthy. Today they are vastly different from what they once were, however, most of Alaska is in the same boat.
On our river system “the Kuskokwim” the king salmon populations currently as I write this are pretty darn low. There once was a time that they were VERRY plentiful, and it was not that long ago, however in the latest years the numbers have been low. That story holds true for many rivers accost Alaska. The Kenai for example is a well-known river system that once was full of large Kings. Over the weekend, I talked to a guide that in 2022 fished hard for Kings in June and July. During those months, his clients hooked and landed a grand total of eight all season. To a lot of guides, this was a lot. Years ago, this might have been a daily average.
On the other side of the fence, there is an upside. The Sockeye have been on the increase all over the state. The Kuskokwim for example at one time never really had a run of sockeye to speak of. Today that runs is growing by the year and is a welcome site. The Bristol Bay area is seeing record numbers of sockeye year after year. How long this trend will continue, nobody knows but for whatever reason it is it is a welcome sight.
On another note, the silver salmon have had their difficulties. In 2019, we experienced a drought that no one has seen. The river had dropped to its lowest level ever. Two weeks of 90-degree heat plagued our area, and the rest of the summer was in the 80s. Once the silvers made it to our part of the river, they made it to resting areas and held tight until the cool fall rains. During this time, we were able to hook and land 100-120fissh to the boat a day. Since the limit is only five, we caught and released most of these fish. Since then, on average during most years we have seen 50-60 fish brought to the boat a day, until last year (2022). This past year (2022) was an anomaly as we barely saw any silvers at all. In fact, the numbers were so low ADFG shut down sport fishing altogether on the Kuskokwim drainage. Now that does not mean we did not see any, it does mean the numbers were very low. Does this mean we will never see 100 fish days again? I do not know, however, after speaking with a friend that owns another lodge in a different part of the state, I am optimistic that we will see good numbers of silvers again. As he has explained to me, having been a lodge owner for the last 20 years there was one year they had seen a bad run of silvers but after that everything was back to normal. Regardless we are watching the run and crossing our fingers.
The last of my two cents is that I think we will be ok. What I mean is some populations are slowly increasing. Some are steadily increasing, and some have an up-and-down cycle to them. Overall, the total numbers seem to be down, but they are doing well. On the other side of the fence, I think that the pike and sheefish that feed on these will be simply fine. As I mentioned I see some populations of salmon increasing and some populations have a bit of a flow to them. At the end of the day so far it seems that overall we are holding our own.
When I purchased the lodge one of my main criteria was to make sure we had something to fish for besides salmon. Our river system has great populations of Pike and Sheefish. So, if a guest were to come and fish with us and for whatever reason, the salmon runs were off, we still had plenty of other fish to go after. The salmon runs all over Alaska are in some ways up and in some ways down. One thing is for sure, Alaska is still just as wild and beautiful. What they say is true, beautiful fish do live in beautiful places.