That’s right folks, one month. We are exactly one month out from Fat Bear Week.
Not to be confused with your weekly episode of the Bear Grease Podcast, Fat Bear Week is an annual contest in Katmai National Park that pits their well-known brown bears against each other in a bracket-style contest. A popular vote online determines which bear gained the most weight from start to end of the year’s sockeye salmon migration.
This brilliant and well-played outreach initiative by the National Park Service illustrates and celebrates the ecological health of the famous Bristol Bay Region of Alaska. While the park’s charismatic bears are in the spotlight, I’d argue that Fat Bear Week is just as much of a celebration of salmon—the bounty they provide and the incredible odds they’ve overcome to wind up at Brooks Falls. And, if they get lucky enough to sneak by the bears and complete their life cycle, their successful reproduction will start the whole damn thing over again.
As with many things valuable and worthwhile, when the end is near, reflections begin. At this time of year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person in Alaska, much less a bear, not reflecting on the year’s salmon runs.
Late-season tourists are packing airline shipping boxes with their fresh-caught fillets as they depart for home. Fishing guides are wrapping up their summers and starting offseason tasks and chores. Local anglers and subsistence users are taking stock of their fish on hand for the long winter ahead. Fisheries managers are compiling harvest reports and analyzing data. Commercial fishermen are balancing budgets, winterizing boats, and making repairs.
All are preparing for next season.
With good reason, salmon have long been christened “the lifeblood of Alaska.” In the Last Frontier, the economic and sociological importance of North America’s Pacific salmon species—Chinook, chum, coho, sockeye, and pink salmon—cannot be oversold. In a perfect world, every official and stakeholder would reflect on the year’s salmon season with satisfaction. But these days, that’s rarely the case.
So why isn’t everyone as happy about Pacific salmon returns as the bears at Katmai National Park? There’s no easy answer. In fact, it’s a bit of a paradox.
The State of Salmon First thing’s first, the focus on Alaska here is not meant to slight the continued efforts to conserve salmon populations in other regions of the West Coast and Pacific Northwest. However, it must be said that the general outlook for Pacific salmon outside of Alaska is relatively bleak. As documented in the State of Salmon Watersheds Report released earlier this year, many populations in Washington State are on the brink of extinction.
In contrast, as evidenced by the portly bears of Katmai, certain Bristol Bay-area salmon populations have been flourishing in recent years. As of late July this year, a record 63.2 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay rivers.
Yet, in other regions and watersheds of Alaska, once-healthy salmon populations are struggling mightily. In the Yukon River Drainage, which encompasses over 330,000 square miles of the U.S. and Canada, subsistence fishing for kings and chum salmon has remained closed this year like many recent years. Just last week, sport fishing for coho salmon was closed in the Yukon Basin as well. Earlier in the season, sport and commercial fisheries for Chinook salmon were closed on the famous Kenai River. These types of closures, while necessary, have cascading effects throughout local communities and fishing industries.
But how can some salmon fisheries be booming while others are tanking?
Clearly, wild-caught Alaska salmon are not a monolith. This year’s salmon returns broke all-time highs for some populations, while others saw all-time low returns, and others remained status quo. Thus, an understanding of the sustainability of Pacific salmon broadly allows for consumers like you and me to make responsible decisions at the seafood counters and restaurants. And despite what the filmmakers of the “Seaspiracy” documentary would like you to believe, sustainable marine fisheries do exist, but as always, consumers should be aware of their seafood choices, including salmon.
A litany of factors can contribute to salmon population fluctuations and declines. Researchers continue to better understand these factors, which include climate change, habitat degradation, bycatch, hydroelectric dams, predation, and more. Despite the suite of issues at hand, consumers often point fingers at each other for taking more of their fair share, or at managers for allowing such overindulgence.
But, as Mark Kurlansky, best-selling author of the book “Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate,” said on episode 217 of the MeatEater Podcast, “If you could find a fishery where [overfishing or regulating fisheries] was the only problem, it would be wonderful, it would be so relatively easy to fix. But, the problems are far more complex than that.”
The Salmon Paradox In fact, as an added layer of complexity, there are actually more overall salmon swimming in the North Pacific than ever before, says Dr. Peter Westley, a fisheries professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, whose research focuses on salmon ecology and conservation.
“Right now, you’ve got too many salmon, which results in too few salmon,” Westley said. “That’s the paradox. There are so many salmon in the ocean right now that I think it’s coming at a cost for many places.”
More than 1 billion hatchery salmon were released into the North Pacific this year from the U.S., Russia, Canada, and Japan, Westley told MeatEater. In the coming years, those hatchery-reared fish will join the 600 million or more pounds harvested by commercial fishermen in Alaskan waters each year. About half of those salmon, by weight, will be pink salmon—and many of those will be of hatchery origin.
Beyond pure population counts, the varying life histories of different salmon species come together in the ocean. “Current conditions that are favoring lots of mouths in the ocean might not be favoring those that spend more time in the ocean,” Westley said.
Pink salmon are the most commonly released hatchery fish. They grow fast and die young in a two-year life cycle. This is good from a commercial harvest and economic perspective. But Chinook salmon live longer, grow slower, and spend more time in the ocean. Pinks rarely exceed eight pounds, while Chinook often surpass 50. Now, in the king’s fight to make it back to freshwater, they must also compete with more and more hatchery-raised fish every year.
“If you are buying pink salmon, are you contributing to the market that is encouraging the continued release of pink salmon? On one hand, you’re catching and consuming the surplus, but does that contribute to the demand for more pink salmon?” Westley asked. “We know that demand can be detrimental.”
Moreover, the complexity of salmon management is amplified by life histories that are at risk of harm at various life stages from eggs to adults and in any suitable habitat from freshwater to salt. As such, it can be difficult to grasp how sockeye can perform so well somewhere like Bristol Bay while at the same time other species in other rivers are in rapid decline.
“In addition to climate change, certain rivers are struggling because those fish are sharing a common ocean with all the other salmon and fishes. So, we see local effects that are taking place on larger spatial scales than we can see or really imagine,” Westley said.
Additionally, marine movements and life stages of different salmon species are vast and not entirely understood—once they enter the abyss of the North Pacific, many salmon populations in essence operate in an untraceable void before returning to freshwater.
While ongoing research is furthering our understanding of salmon in the ocean, “that can be very confusing for consumers and anglers, leading people to blame other groups (or animals) that are catching ‘their fish.’ There are just other factors that cannot be controlled at the local watershed level,” Westley said.
These nuances matter. And where you are matters too.
“If you happen to be in Bristol Bay, the state of salmon is great. It might seem like the state of salmon is great across Alaska, but there is no one single ‘state of salmon,’” Westley said.
No Easy Solution There is no one simple answer to effectively bring balance to all Pacific salmon populations. That said, from the consumer’s perspective, the Holy Grail should be wild-caught Alaska salmon if you can get it, according to Westley. And, as he put bluntly, “not farmed Atlantic salmon.” Open-ocean salmon and trout farms in Canada, America, Norway, and elsewhere contribute to disease and parasites to nearby wild salmonids and are ecologically indefensible, as well as unhealthy. A popular bumper sticker in Alaska reads: “Farmed Salmon Dyed for You.”
Responsible consumers should ask what species is being offered. If your grocery store or restaurant can’t produce the origin of their salmon, don’t buy it.
“In Alaska, for rivers that aren’t doing well, there is still management in place,” he said. “There’s not a lot of harvest on those rivers, so you’re not contributing to the problem by buying, say, sockeye salmon from Alaska and well-managed rivers like the Copper or Bristol Bay [streams]. The other rivers that are struggling, they are well managed too, in theory, because they are shut down.”
But that doesn’t make salmon management decisions any easier. In a day and age when self-driving electric cars are verging towards commonplace, dog mushers in remote Alaskan communities still rely on salmon to fuel their “vehicles.” These dog teams provide critical transportation and access to basic needs throughout the long Alaskan winters. Last year, responding to a desperate call, Purina donated nearly 40,000 pounds of dog food to Yukon River communities following dismal chum (also known as “dog”) salmon returns and harvest restrictions that otherwise limited musher’s ability to feed their canines.
Clearly, as the lifeblood of Alaska, catching salmon is more than just catching fish to eat. Salmon feed a collective culture and soul. For other consumers in Alaska and beyond, who, like the bears of Katmai, are preparing for winter ahead, it’s important to be mindful of their choices—labeling from the Marine Stewardship Council is a good start. And, as for the “fat bears” of Katmai, they can continue to have their Bristol Bay salmon and eat it too, because that’s a paradox none of us are ready to tackle.