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Lessons from Alaska

Alaska values its wild fisheries. And acts like it.

September 21, 2007
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The treasured salmon runs of Alaska are protected from the dangers of fish farming.
Photo: Doug Wilson

The most effective political message to fit on a bumper sticker is one you’re likely to see in Alaska, on a dusty old pick-up or new SUV. It reads: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Salmon. Support Alaska’s Wild Fisheries.” And it’s not just a saying: Alaska prohibits the farming of salmon and other finfish, recognizing the importance of preserving wild stocks against the dangers of industrial-scale fish farming.

Salmon is king in Alaska; and not just king salmon, but red (sockeye), silver (coho) and pink (humpback), too. The catch for market in 2003 was valued at about $195 million, or nearly one-fifth the value of the state’s total commercial harvest. Angling, or seawater fishing as the locals call it, is an even bigger business. Recreational fishermen clamor to spend about $537 million a year in Alaska, and salmon is the most sought-after fish by far, generating more than 11,000 jobs and $235 million in wages, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

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So it makes sense that Alaska fears losing its native river-runs of wild fish, and the markets and sport fisheries they support. While angling for salmon is just as valuable in the Lower 48, such losses have already come to pass in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California, where the recreational value of salmon is often discussed in numbers of fish and the value of each.

One study estimates the economic impact of salmon angling on the West Coast at $200 per fish. But look at both sides of that number: what’s being forfeited due to mismanagement and habitat loss — most salmon stocks outside Alaska are federally listed as threatened or endangered species — or what could be gained if salmon runs were restored to their historic abundance.

The healthy wild stocks of Alaska provide a stark contrast to the dwindling salmon stocks to the south, where fishing is propped up by hatchery production and markets are sustained by farm-produced fish. Protect fish habitat where it still exists, bring it back where it’s been destroyed and, while you’re at it, don’t let artificially propagated salmon replace the wild ones.

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WATERSHED EVENTS
A 2002 report on Alaska oceans and watersheds notes that 90 to 98 percent of salmon may die through natural predation and fishing before they can return to their rivers and streams to spawn. Those streams must remain natural and provide an unobstructed route to the spawning beds and a free-flowing exodus for juveniles to the sea.

The Columbia and Snake Rivers have lost much of their capacity to produce wild salmon, a result of a vast network of dams and water projects that account for around 90 percent of the human-induced mortality of salmon. Other causes of degraded watersheds are logging, overgrazing and water pollution. All salmon fishing on the West Coast combined — commercial, recreational and tribal — makes up only one to five percent, depending on species, of mortality caused by man.

Only three percent of species listed under the Endangered Species Act are marine fish. And most of these fish are anadromous species — fish that live in salt water but breed in fresh water. The Atlantic salmon is another of these fish and was an important food source for the first Europeans in North America, just as it was for Native Americans. With more than a little irony, some angling histories have noted that the gradual demise of Atlantic salmon over the past two centuries actually turned the once-abundant fish into the rarest and most prized of gamefish. But the line between rare and endangered was crossed long ago.

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CULTIVATED COMEBACK
The Atlantic salmon is making a comeback, of sorts — but not in the anxious count of fish returning to New England rivers, the result of ambitious re-stocking programs.

No, today there is an abundance of salmon from the Atlantic flooding the marketplace, because it’s the salmon of choice for the world’s booming fish-farming industry.

In April, Alaska Senator Barbara Murkowski introduced legislation to ban fish farming in federal waters offshore — in effect, making national policy the same as that of her state. The ban would remain in place until the potential threats of fish farming are studied.

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Those threats are real and not easily remedied, including PCBs that accumulate in the flesh of farmed salmon; mass quantities of forage fish such as menhaden, sardines and anchovies netted to feed farmed fish; large numbers of farmed fish escaping their pens to compete with wild stocks for food and habitat, breeding with wild fish and creating populations that are genetically weaker and more vulnerable to disease and parasites; and waste byproducts, along with pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in aquaculture, that leak into the marine environment.

Finally, there is the threat created in people’s minds. Former Idaho Senator Helen Chenoweth once uttered this gem: “How can I take [the endangered status of the Snake River salmon] seriously when you can go in and you can buy a can of salmon off the shelf in Albertson’s?” Like the senator, most of the (non-angling) public comes into contact with salmon at the fish counter and in restaurants, and they can be deceived into thinking there are plenty of salmon out there. And there are: just precious few wild salmon.

Except in Alaska — still the exception that proves the rule. Do not mistake farmed salmon with hatchery-produced fish, which is basically a stocking program. Salmon hatcheries are ubiquitous these days, even in Alaska. Estimates say hatcheries have doubled the biomass of salmon in the north Pacific, but studies have shown that adding them to the wild can inhibit the size and breeding potential of individual fish. Still, Alaska should be applauded for being protective of its wild fisheries.

Wild Alaskan salmon are living proof that “No Habitat Equals No Fish” is more than a slogan. Loss of habitat and environmental degradation reduces fish populations in measurable ways. For salmon, it may mean extinction. For other fish, the impact may be less dramatic, but nonetheless real. We continue to lose coastal wetlands and coral reefs. Agricultural and urban run-off choke estuaries and coastal waters with excess nutrients.

So here’s a sticker every angler should, figuratively if not literally, put on his or her tackle box or boat: “Heed the Call of the Wild.” Fish are wild animals and they need wild places. And if we need the fish — and what angler doesn’t — we need to preserve those places. Protecting their environment — our environment — is just the other side of the same coin.

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