Posts Tagged ‘sockeye salmon’

Salmon Trumps Gold

Friday, October 25th, 2013
The world's largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (

The world’s largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (

Each year 30-40 million sockeye salmon, along with smaller numbers of chum, silver and king salmon, return to breed in the rivers and streams that empty into Bristol Bay, Alaska after several years growing in the North Pacific.

Bristol Bay, Alaska - 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (

Bristol Bay, Alaska – 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (

Bristol Bay, the easternmost extension of the Bering Sea on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, is relatively shallow, with shoals, sandbars and strong winds, as well as tides that are funneled up to a remarkable 10 m by the time they reach the eastern end of the bay. Shipping is a challenge.

It is a region of salmon fishing, both commercial and sport, of canneries, and of hunting and tourism. It is also a region with very large reserves of gold and other tempting minerals.

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna  where Pebble Mine would be located (

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna where Pebble Mine would be located (

The possibility of mining the minerals at what is known as Pebble Mine has been the focus of an intense fight for a couple of decades. There are reasons to be concerned.

If mining occurred, it would last several decades and would accumulate 10 billion tons of mining waste that would somehow have to be stored ‘permanently’ in an area that is considered to be an earthquake zone. And of course such mining also uses and contaminates vast amount of fresh water.

It is hard to find anyone in the region who supports Pebble Mine. Almost a million people have signed a petition that opposes it.

Last May the EPA issued a draft assessment indicating the risk of contamination from the proposed mine would be great, and that the Clean Water Act could be invoked to protect the region. Still, two companies have wanted to start the permit process – Anglo American and Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (

In mid September, Anglo American unexpectedly announced that the whole endeavor was too much of a risk, and pulled out. An encouraging development, but Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals say they’ll continue on alone to seek permits.

Perhaps they won’t. A final draft of the EPA assessment is not due until the end of this year, but Congressional hearings are currently underway.

Even if the EPA succeeds in stopping the mining, other threats to Bristol Bay remain. Much of the Bay has been a target for oil and gas drilling, also for decades. Despite great opposition from local villages, Native Tribes, fishing organizations, conservation groups, and even the State of Alaska, the US Dept of Interior opened the Bay to oil and gas exploration when Reagan was president.

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (

Congress added the Bay to the moratorium on oil exploration following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and in 1998 Clinton extended the protection from exploration to 2012. Not surprisingly, George W. Bush removed Bristol Bay from the moratorium in 2003 and then in 2007 lifted the further protection that Clinton had given it. In 2010, Obama once again removed the area from any leasing programs, protecting it through 2017. The US Republican Congress tried seven times to withdraw that protection during its 2012 session, and though it failed each time, it is clear that any decisions can easily be reversed.

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (

Bristol Bay is wild, remote, diverse and productive, one of the richest marine ecosystems left on Earth. It can be protected, and its fisheries can be sustained. Or it can be wrecked by the usual suspects.

These are hardly rational times, and ‘saving’ a place is a process that may never end.

Constant vigilance is our only option.

Permanent protection will take unending effort (

Permanent protection will take unending effort (

Unpredictable Fish

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Famously, this fall, Sockeye Salmon have returned to spawn in unexpectedly large numbers in the Fraser River system in southern British Columbia. This is after several years of such unexpectedly low returning numbers that commercial fishing ceased. We clearly don’t understand what’s happening, except that we know the predictive models have failed.

Sockeye salmon turn red and hook-nosed as they migrate up river (

All five Pacific salmon species grow to adulthood in the Gulf of Alaska. Sockeye have the largest range. (

Actually, after two and a half years growing to adults in the North Pacific, Sockeye have returned in colossal numbers, 35 million of them – the most in a century – to breed in the inland tributaries of the Fraser River, many swimming for 17 days 480 km up to the 12 km of the Adams River where they spawn in the shallows, and then die.

Sockeye migrating up the Fraser River (

For a long time, every fourth year the number of returning salmon has been particularly great, celebrated by the quadrennial mid-October festival ‘Salute to the Sockeye’. When a large number spawn, four years later their offspring should return in large numbers. If a small number spawn, four years later the run ought to be small as well.

This year 150,000 tourists have come to Salute the Sockeye run in the Adams River. (

In fact, in 2006, only 1.5 million fish returned to the mouth of the Fraser. In 2007 only 1.4 million returned, and fishing for them was radically curtailed. In 2008, 1.6 million returned, and the species was ‘red listed’ by the IUCN, identified as threatened. In 2009, when 11 million were expected, only 1.5 million showed up, and everyone agreed a fishery collapse had occurred.

Why so few? Was this the end of the fishery? A Canadian federal inquiry is trying to understand the causes of the collapse, assessing the roles of ocean warming, overfishing, diseases, pollution, sea lice infections, government fisheries policies, and food shortages in the Pacific. A challenge, to say the least.

The Fraser River basin is immense. Sockeye breed in many of its tributaries, but the Adams River population is the msot famous (

Some evidence suggests the fish die not long after swimming the gauntlet of 70 possible contaminating fish farms as they head north from the Fraser River as juvenile. And yet the 35 million fish that returned in 2010 also had to swim the same gauntlet of 70 fish farms when they were juveniles. How do we account for that success?

Years of terminally low runs, now the largest run in a century. What on earth is going on?

A recent suggestion is that, when the Alaskan Kasotochi volcano erupted in 2008, it fertilized the Gulf of Alaska with iron rich ash which then supported an explosion of plankton over an area 1000 km wide. This year’s returning Sockeye population would have been there at the peak of the bloom, feeding heavily and growing rapidly. In other words, a one-off event.

Kasatochi Volcano erupted in August 2008, spewing ash westward over the Gulf of Alaska (

Whatever the causes, we now have the image of a spectacular run despite all the other horrible things going on in the ocean’s ecosystems, indicating that recovery of wild Sockeye salmon populations is at least possible – possible perhaps by protecting, nourishing, and increasing the productivity of the Gulf of Alaska. Another huge challenge.

There is alway potentially immense and unpredictable variation in the size of any fish population, even under what we think are relatively stable environmental conditions. Adding then the changes that are occurring in the oceans as a result of ocean warming, overfishing, and contamination, predictability becomes increasingly unlikely. How do you make predictions when the rules are changing in unpredictable ways?

Can we say with certainty what lies ahead for us?
Of course we can: increasing unpredictability.

Grizzly charges to catch a sockeye. Or perhaps a tourist. (