A Fish Story – Salmon Run

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A Fish Story

 

30+ million! That’s the sockeye run on Fraser River system, give or take a few millions. Yippee! But wait, there’s more! 160,000 sockeye went through Seattle’s locks to Lake Washington (as opposed to 20,000 last year). Double yippee. Bear in mind, however, that number has to reach 350,000 before it’s fishable on the lake, and even recently the number of sockeye returning has been 750,000.

So, great news to the north and good news here. But, that’s only one salmon species. And, the closer one looks at this year’s sockeye phenomenon, the more complex the issues seem.

And if one dares to look over the horizon a bit, the health of future runs remains precarious at best.

 

Sockeye Fishing For All

Of course recreational anglers are really excited abou this year’s return to the Fraser. Commerical fisherman, and in particular the Swinomish tribe, are only too happy for a big catch, but probably a little too beaten down to get too excited for the long term. Fish scientists are pretty happy as well, because it gives them some exciting and positive data to work with for a change.  And, guaranteed, the sea lions are happy.

Two vital questions remain: Why were the runs so great and is this a permanent shift.

And it turns out there are about 30+ million answers to those questions, and more than a couple people and organizations trying to take credit. Regardless of why the sockeye run is so great, this is a great opportunity for all of us to get a little more understanding of salmon.

 

Mother Nature

First off, and something that there is little dispute about, is that the ocean conditions for this year’s salmon have made for really good eating. While they’re out in the ocean getting big and healthy, the salmon eat zooplankton and shrimp, among other things. It turns out that those salmon food groups love cooler water, and cooler water is what they’ve had recently. So, while this year’s class of salmon didn’t have an extraordinary number headed out in recent years, a great buffet has allowed a much better than average percentage to return.

Cooler water? Isn’t the ocean heating up with global warming? Yes, indeed, generally speaking the oceans are getting warmer. More on that later.

We’re in a La Niña phase in the world weather patterns these days, and that has helped the ocean conditions. In the Pacific, this has created more-than-usual northwest winds, which in turn has produced a pattern of upwelling of the cooler water toward the surface. The layers where the sockeye feed have been particularly cool, and the sockeye particularly well-fed.

“People have complained that there was no summer here in 2010,” explains Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association, but it’s been great weather for sockeye.

For some, this is an invitation to lay all the credit or all the blame for the success of a salmon run at the feet of old Mother Nature. That would be a little too easy. There’s another part of the life cycle involved here, the beginning.

As Hans Berge, fisheries biologist with King County, points out: “Ocean conditions can turn a great production in the freshwater into a poor one, but can’t turn poor freshwater production into a great season.”

Everyone from Weyerhauser to city council members have at times taken credit for helping hatchling and juvenile salmon in various ways. And there are no shortage of ways to try to help those little guys. There’s been barging, water flow management and habitat protection/restoration. One of the big helps to this year’s sockeye run is relatively good water depth and flow in rivers in the last few years. Special smolt runs through dams and other barriers make it easier for the fish to make it to salt water. In short, everything helps. And, of course, there are the hatcheries.

 

What about Hatcheries

 

Nobody is arguing that hatchery fish are in any way superior to wild fish. They are, everyone is agreed, necessary.

It may be news to some that a lot of the salmon returning from those cool feeding grounds are hatchery fish. Of course, fishermen know this only too well, as they often have to throw back wild fish but get to keep the ones with clipped adipose fins. Hatchery fish can form a very high percentage of the total run. Of the 9200 chinook that came through the Chittenden Locks this year, only 10% were wild.

So, hatchery fish must be a good thing, right? Certainly, but not without an asterisk or two. Yes, they certainly provide lots of fun for sportfishermen and lots of meals on the table. And they don’t carry around the aura of farmed fish. But they certainly aren’t as strong as pure wild fish and their homing senses aren’t as fully developed as ones that are hatched the old fashioned way.

Tony Floor is looking forward to a permanent sockeye hatchery to be opened on the Cedar River.

Without hatcheries, however, there is little doubt many salmon runs would have disappeared entirely and many others would be on their way out.

Interestingly, sockeye and chum salmon, both of which are doing well, are thriving without much help from hatcheries.

 

The Other Salmon

 

Not all the salmon are enjoying the sockeye’s good life. Chinook (aka king) salmon have enjoyed protection by virtue of being on the endangered species list. “That listing is beginning to have its effect” according to Floor. Chinook runs are so far down, its recovery is expected to take a while.

Coho (aka silver)salmon seem to be holding their own, numbers wise. It is considered a “species of concern” but does not appear to be under immediate threat. But it’s no secret the coho fishing this year has been less than good.

Pink (aka humpback) salmon are considered imperiled in Washington waters, but secure in BC and Alaska. In fact, Floor expects pink salmon to be the great success story in the years to come, with three successful life cycles to build on.

Chum (aka dog or keta) salmon are healthy in Alaska, but challenged elsewhere. The Hood Canal and Columbia River chum populations are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List.

 

Ding Dong the Dam is Dead

 

If you haven’t already heard, one of the most exciting things to happen for fish and the environment in the coming years will be the deconstruction of two dams on the Olympic Peninsula., the 108’ Elwha and the 210’ Glines Canyon dams. Built about 100 years ago on the Elwha River with apparently little to no thought given to the reprocussions to the fish, these dams shut down one of the best breeding grounds for salmon in the world.

This isn’t just exciting for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe which, by the way, was instrumental in the legal proceedings that led to this point. This is exciting for the entire world. Scientists have already been trekking to the Elwha to get a sense of the “before” so they can understand the “after.”

There’s a lot to anticipate. Salmon still come up to the first dam to see if there’s a way past (there is none). Never mind how many generations have missed actually making it to the spawning grounds. And Elwha hatchery fish have also been kept isolated from other groups to keep that DNA intact.

And, oh yeah, some Elwha Chinook used to reach 100 lbs!  That’s what Mother Nature had generated at one time. The opening of the Elwha may tell us how much damage man has wrought, and if we’re able to undo it.

 

 

Fish Farming

 

The majority of salmon being sold for human consumption aren’t exactly pulled from the raging waters of a pristine river, they come from pens or even tanks. Few things will get a commercial fisherman, or an environmentalist, as excited as a discussion about fish farming. And certainly, the idea of fish being kept in mass in confined areas, just isn’t very appealing. But people need to eat, and there are pretty good arguments to be made that fish farming takes pressure off the wild runs. And while there are environmental impacts in farming fish, so are there impacts in catching them as well.

There remain questions about the quality of fish kept in pens as well. Sure they school in the open ocean, but it’s a whole different lifestyle out there eating the zooplankton and other goodies in the Pacific than living in a pen off Vancouver Island or Chile. Apparently the salmon get roughed up a bit living in confined spaces and when there’s an infection or sea lice, it can go through the pens quickly. No doubt (and one hopes) that situation is getting better all the time.

When we found that our favorite canned salmon we’d been eating  at my house (a staple for us) was actually farmed fish, it went back to the store.

That all said, there is no question that fish farming is a big part of the present and future of consumable fish. And there are innovations already here, such as tank raising of fish using aquaculture techniques of constantly replenished and filtered water. This can be done with close to organic methods and utilizes the fish waste as fertilizer.

If we’re still OK with farmed salmon on our plates, we might not be at all OK with genetically altered farmed salmon on our plates. The US Food and Drug Administration has released documents indicating that those Frankenfish are safe. Aqua Bounty Technologies has created Atlantic salmon that grow twice as fast as normal with the help of genes from chinook salmon and something called a pout fish. The fish haven’t yet been approved for human consumption, but that doesn’t seem far off. I might be a little harsh with the name-calling, but twice as fast growth?

The Aqua Bounty fish would be reared in captivity on Prince Edward Island and perhaps Panama.

 

Salmon in Hot Water?

 

This year’s great salmon run does make one thing, and perhaps only one thing, perfectly clear. It doesn’t take much to change a salmon run from sparse to celebratory. A degree cooler water in the ocean, a half a percent better survival rate for fry, another inch or two of water in the streams. Any of these things might have a big effect on the run.

Mother Nature saw to it that this year’s sockeye run had the right conditions.

We can all celebrate. It’s a positive sign for the ecosystem and a huge testament to the resiliency of that great fish. But it’s not a sign that things have turned a corner or that we can all head out and drop lines in the water. It’s a sign that all those fish scientists should keep figuring out what are the most important steps we need to take so that when the opportunity for a big run comes around, it can happen again.

Here’s one last thing to think about. The oceans are getting warmer. Sure, you can discuss exactly why they’re getting warmer until the salmon come home, but there is no denying they’re getting warmer and man’s influence has had something to do with it. The air is getting warmer too, even if it didn’t feel that way this summer. La Niña will give way again someday to El Niño. Let’s see, when nature turns off this upwelling thing she’s been doing (which she will) and the oceans heat up a degree or two (last year the world’s oceans had a record average temperature), maybe there will be some less than welcome records set.

But fear not, we might be able to go see what salmon look like in tanks in Panama. Who knows, the farmers might even allow our great grandchildren to drop a line in a tank while we tell them about the 30 million sockeye running the Fraser back in ought-ten.

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