There are five species of wild Alaska salmon: sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka), king or chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch), chum (Oncorhynchus keta), and pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha). Alaska salmon are anadromous, meaning they grow in the ocean, and spawn in the rivers. Salmon spawn only once in their lives.
Salmon return to their natal stream to spawn, passing through enclosed bays and shallow water, on their way to the upriver spawning grounds. Alaskas fishery managers take advantage of the anadromous behavior of salmon. They observe and count the fish, and ensure that sufficient numbers of adult spawners escape the fishery, and swim up the rivers to spawn. Salmon also school tightly, and do not mix very much with other species of fishes. This means that commercial salmon fishing has virtually no incidental catch, or bycatch, of non-salmon fishes.
Alaska salmon are caught only in specific, tightly regulated areas within state waters up to three nautical miles offshore. They are harvested by fishermen, families, and Alaska Natives, many of whom are owner-operators, meaning they are independent businesses operating their own boats.
Every aspect of Alaskas salmon fisheries is strictly regulated, closely monitored, and rigidly enforced. The State of Alaskas statutes and regulations control such factors as:
Fishing areas prohibit harvests too far offshore where the incidental catch of salmon bound for other rivers would be too high, or too close inshore where the salmon are crowded, and too vulnerable. In managing the fisheries on an in-season, day-to-day basis, Alaskas fishery managers can open and close certain areas to fishing in response to fish behavior, water levels, and other conditions. This allows a reasonable separation of salmon so that each fishery targets a specific run of fish.
Fishing licenses rigidly limited by a system known as limited entry. This means that anyone wishing to fish for salmon must purchase an existing license from another license owner, because new licenses are not issued. This allows for rational management of the fishery, without undue impacts to the long-term health of the salmon stocks.
Fishing gear purse seines and gillnets must be constructed of multi-filament mesh, rather than the less-visible monofilament. They must float at the surface where their catch can be observed. All nets are limited in their length, depth, and periods of operation, as are the gear and operation of troll (hook) gear. Trawl nets are not allowed for salmon. The fishing gear itself, and the way it is fished, virtually eliminates incidental catch of marine mammals or birds.
Alaskas fisheries management system is well-crafted and has served well for almost four decades, as demonstrated by the sustainability of Alaskas salmon harvests. The Alaska Board of Fisheries sets harvest policies, regulations, and allocations, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) conducts biological research, and enforces the Boards decisions. The dominant goal is the harvest policy known as fixed escapement. This means that managements first priority is to ensure that sufficient numbers of adult spawning salmon escape capture in the fishery in the ocean and are allowed to spawn in the rivers, thus maintaining the long-term health of the stocks. Escapement goals can be reliably achieved for each species, each stock, every year. All human uses of salmon, especially commercial fishing, are subordinate to this guiding principle. Because of the natural variability of environmental conditions such as El Niño, the total number of adult fish returning to spawn may vary. In order to maintain escapement, it is the commercial harvest that fluctuates from year to year.
The salmon fisheries are tactically managed while they are taking place. Alaska has led the way with its in-season salmon management approach, which has become a model among fisheries management agencies around the world. In addition, the in-season management decisions are made from a local office, by the biologists most knowledgeable in that fishery, rather than in some distant headquarters. This allows ADFG to account for the natural variability of the runs. ADFG manages over 15,000 salmon streams throughout the state.
Alaskas abundant, well-managed commercial salmon fisheries support a thriving commercial fishing and seafood processing industry, by far the largest employment sector in the state. The overwhelming majority of Alaskas salmon are landed and processed at seafood plants in scores of small coastal communities all along Alaskas 47,300 miles of coastline. These long-established villages and towns depend on salmon as their economic base, and therefore have a strong incentive to support long-term, sustainable management of the fisheries.
Alaskas management of its fisheries is ecologically sound, in other important ways:
All Alaska salmon live in their natural habitat in the cold, clean waters of the North Pacific Ocean. Here they grow to adulthood at their natural pace, eating only their natural foods like shrimp, herring, squid, zooplankton, and other marine life. They swim free on the high seas and then return to their natal streams on their own schedule. This is why Alaskas salmon fisheries are seasonal, rather than year-round. Alaska salmon are wild; there are no salmon farms in Alaska. In order to protect Alaskas wild fisheries from potential problems, salmon farming was prohibited by the Alaska legislature in 1990 (Alaska Statute 16.40.210).
Alaska salmon helps to support robust populations of bears, eagles, and a host of other species of birds and mammals. The abundance of these predator and scavenger salmon-eating species is testament to the success of Alaskas salmon management. Alaska salmon are an important and integral part of their natural ecosystem. Unlike those in other parts of the world, no Alaska salmon stocks are threatened or endangered.
Alaskas salmon have been abundant for millennia, and they are managed to ensure their future abundance. In Alaska, the fish come first!
Source: Article and images from Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI)