by Joel Hanson
Director of Conservation Programs for The Boat Company
There is something fishy about Southeast Alaska…literally…and we hope to keep it that way.
The Boat Company founder, Mike McIntosh, fished this area in 1951 during a summer break from college, coming here to work aboard a commercial fishing vessel contracted to a cannery that was a far-flung branch of his family’s business, A & P Foods. Thousands of other commercial fishermen, sport fishermen and cannery workers came here before Mike, have come here since, and continue to come here every year. From an economic perspective, fishing and related activities are the most important human enterprises in the region.
Fish are also at the very center of this region’s web of life, supporting a rich abundance and diversity of plant and animal species, from brown bears and estuary grasses to sea lions and gulls.
The health of fish species is thus important to Southeast Alaska. To stay healthy, we need regular checkups. Here, we look at salmon and halibut.
Fisheries managers refer to these two species as being ‘fully allocated’, which means they are comprehensively managed and completely utilized by sport, commercial and subsistence fishermen, with sufficient portions of the stock set aside to ensure natural reproductive success and to provide for normal mortality due to predation by the aforementioned bears, sea lions, etc.
Because salmon and halibut are fully allocated, they are the subject of intense monitoring, research and analysis by private, state, federal and international fisheries managers, all of whom maintain exhaustive databases on current and historic stock strengths. Managers constantly cross-check their stock projections against real-world commercial, sport and subsistence catch rates in order to validate assumptions.
Thus, by the end of any given fishing season, managers are able to estimate the health of salmon and halibut stocks with considerable accuracy.
In October 2015, the agency which is responsible for maintaining the health of salmon stocks in Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), released the following announcement regarding the health of Alaska’s salmon stocks:
The total 2015 statewide commercial salmon harvest was 263.5 million fish, and was comprised of 474,000 Chinook salmon, 15.2 million chum salmon, 3.6 million coho salmon, 190.5 million pink salmon, and 54 million sockeye salmon. Overall, this represents the second largest salmon harvest on record, and was exceeded only by the record harvests of 2013. Pink and sockeye salmon returns were especially strong; the number of harvested pink salmon came close to the 2013 record year, and sockeye salmon harvests are among the top 10 of all time.
According to ADF&G, it seems that salmon stocks are generally very healthy. But what about halibut?
The International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) is responsible for maintaining the health of the halibut resource. Its end-of-season harvest data for 2015 indicates that all commercial and non-commercial harvests in coastal waters off Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California have met expectations. Here, in just a few words, is how they characterized the current health of halibut stocks:
Coastwide stock trends are relatively stable, though there are very different trends among areas.
The following graph speaks somewhat more eloquently. It depicts the steep decline and subsequent bottoming-out of halibut spawning biomass during the period 1996 to present, with the dark blue line representing the best estimate of actual stock size and the lighter shades representing various degrees of estimate uncertainty:
Clearly, halibut stocks are not as healthy as salmon stocks. But the trend since about 2011 has turned slightly positive, which is promising. Further improvements in stock recovery over years to come will depend largely on efforts to reduce halibut bycatch mortality aboard commercial trawl vessels in the Bearing Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Bycatch reductions are essential to the future health of halibut stocks.