The Chase, the Bite, the Fight

Anglers in the lower 48 learn about Alaska’s salmon struggles in a different way when they fish in Alaska
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Hatchery pink salmon are edging out kings and other wild species, making business difficult for those who make their living on the water.

Hatchery pink salmon are edging out kings and other wild species, making business difficult for those who make their living on the water.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association president Ricky Gease says there’s a good chance the “wild-caught” salmon that people buy in grocery stores actually came from a hatchery. That’s because Alaska has been releasing millions of pink salmon — known as humpies — that were cultivated in fisheries to help boost commercial fishermen’s catch volumes, Gease says.

The proliferation of pinks is causing significant damage to the livelihoods of charter captains, as well as recreational anglers and other parts of Alaska’s sportfishing industry.

Largely scorned by Alaskans, pinks often wind up in grocery stores as “wild-caught Alaskan salmon,” a term the commercial fishing industry came up with when it realized it couldn’t label hatchery fish as “wild.” Adding the word “caught” changed the meaning while giving consumers the impression they were spending extra for sustainable, wild Alaskan salmon.

About two-thirds of the salmon caught by commercial fishermen in Alaska are hatchery pinks, and in some waterways that yield is much higher, Gease says, speaking from a charter fishing boat in Resurrection Bay. In Prince William Sound, for example, hatchery pinks account for 87 percent of the total salmon harvest.

“But what’s the cost to the wild salmon?” Gease asks. “It doesn’t make sense to pump out millions of hatchery fish and think there will be no repercussions to the native fish.”

Capt. Andy Mezirow says putting clients on kings is not the game it used to be.

Capt. Andy Mezirow says putting clients on kings is not the game it used to be.

In 2016, 643 million pink salmon fry of hatchery origin were released in remote areas where wild stocks don’t exist. The problem, Gease says, is that they stray. “They’re returning to areas that do have wild salmon, and they’re interbreeding with them,” he says.

Pinks are voracious feeders, Gease says. A study released this year, led by Sonia Dawn Batten with the Marine Biological Association, showed that high pink salmon runs tend to reduce the populations of chinook, sockeye, coho and other varieties of salmon targeted by recreational anglers. The results suggest that’s because the other species can’t compete for food.

“Our findings support other studies indicating consequences for predators that directly or indirectly rely on plankton in the Bering Sea in summers when pink salmon are numerous,” Batten writes in the study.

Growing evidence indicates that foraging pinks affect feeding and reproduction of seabirds, and the growth and survival of sockeye, coho, chum and chinook, Batten says. In the last decade, the chinook population has declined by 50 percent. “Every Alaskan watershed has seen a decline overall and has experienced a differential sex ratio,” Gease says, adding that females require more food and energy to produce eggs.

The decline of those species have resulted in fishery closures and hardships for charter captains, lodges and those who rely on visitors who travel to Alaska to target specific fish.

Warm Water “Blob”

On an unseasonably warm day in September, Gray Light charter Capt. Andy Mezirow scours for bait balls on his fishfinder as he trolls for coveted chinooks, or kings. He acknowledges the fish he speaks reverently of have grown more scarce, but he’s determined to find them for that day’s clients.

The day yielded a few fry that he returned to the bay, and just one keeper — something Mezirow was relieved to have his customers land.

What’s referred to as the “warm water blob” has also affected the salmon populations and runs, particularly in the Kenai River, which he says hasn’t been getting the sea ice it once did.  

“A huge biomass of fish have migrated north of where they ever lived before,” says Mezirow. “A lot of it can be linked to higher temperatures.”

Now there are only a handful of charter captains who target kings because there’s far more precision necessary, says Mezirow. Last summer, he set his downriggers to go below 400 feet because the kings seek chillier waters that are now much deeper than in the past.

“I’m having to work much harder to catch them,” says Mezirow. “There’s a lot more technical knowledge you have to have to find them. Now it requires that the gear is perfect, you have to be at the right depth, and eventually it’s going to become even more difficult to catch them.”

Mezirow used to target halibut, but he stopped when he saw a consumptive trend among people taking Alaska charter fishing trips in search of the fish revered by restaurants. “They’re measuring success in pounds,” Mezirow says. “That’s not what fishing is about. It’s supposed to be about the fish and the chase and the bite. Halibut are easy; they don’t move much. The king is like a unicorn — they’re hard to catch. They’ve always been more picky about what they strike.”

Mezirow tries to influence which fish his clients keep so this attitude doesn’t prevail among those visiting Alaska to catch kings, especially at a time when they’re much more difficult to catch.

“It’s much better to let the small ones go, and make sure you’re keeping quality fish,” Mezirow says.

Ricky Gease with a king salmon, Alaskan sportfishing royalty.

Ricky Gease with a king salmon, Alaskan sportfishing royalty.

Ripple Effects

The problems affect the ocean ecosystem as well as the river, so Kenai River Sportfishing Association has expanded its scope to focus statewide, Gease says. KSRA raised $400,000 for conservation efforts through its Kenai River Classic and Kenai River Women’s Classic tournaments this year. “Our playground really is bigger than the Kenai River, so we’re really trying to tackle some of these national sportfishing issues,” Gease says.

A few primary species drive traffic here, so one bad run or closure has a ripple effect. “People in the lower 48 think of Alaska as this one location,” Gease says. “If the Kenai River has a closure, sometimes it’s on the front page of The New York Times, and people think all regions are closed to all salmon fishing. Alaska is so big; people don’t understand.”

Though it has a smaller allocative footprint than commercial fishing, sport fishing has a $1.5 billion economic impact in Alaska, with each pound of harvested fish generating about $50, Gease says. The state ranks fifth in expenditures made by sport anglers from outside the state.

Cancelled Trips

King salmon runs on the Kenai last summer were weak, says guide Kasey Loomis, who runs Eric Loomis Fishing with her husband. “As a guide, you try and prepare yourself and your clients to the numerous ways the season can play out,” Loomis says. “After the river closure in 2012, whenever I book a client, I am adamant about sharing the possibility of river closures and our options if that happens. I make sure they are aware and that I know their expectations.”

As much as Eric Loomis Fishing works to educate customers about the unknowns, they contract with lodges that don’t always keep customers in the loop, leaving some frustrated. “In years past, if king numbers are low, you can usually fall back on the sockeye,” Loomis says. “This year that was not the case.” This year’s low sockeye run prompted a closure on the Kenai and caused customers to cancel trips, costing the small company hundreds if not thousands of dollars. “That’s a hard hit,” Loomis says.

Gease says fewer people visited his hometown, Soldotna, because of the Kenai River closures. “The city of Kenai had budgeted $450,000 in revenues, and I think they came up $250,000 short this year. That was through lost launch fees and camping on the beach,” he says. “So it’s not just businesses. Governments get impacted also.”

Residents of Alaska also have fewer fish to target. “I know the rest of the country is seemingly booming, but here it’s not,” Gease says. “Money is tight. People depend on fish for sustenance; this year the food banks are going to get more people.”

Benefits for the Lower 48

Commercial fishing is an important industry in Alaska. There have been efforts to partner with commercial fishermen who agree to use shallow nets and isolate their fish, then market them as sustainably caught wild Alaskan salmon so they can sell them for top dollar — a concept that Gease hopes will take root. The groups should be more supportive of each other because sometimes their interests cross, Mezirow adds.

“An interesting point is that every fisherman that comes to Alaska sport fishing becomes a consumer of commercially caught salmon after they eat what they brought home,” Mezirow says. “This never gets discussed, but it is millions of Americans that will order halibut or wild Alaskan salmon for years after their trip.”

The state has a unique opportunity to teach conservation to those who fish for salmon in Alaska and take in the rugged beauty as they experience, as Gease puts it, “the chase, the bite and the fight.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.

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