The salmon harvest numbers in Alaska for 2013 broke records and show the value of undisturbed spawning habitat. Statewide 269.3 million salmon were commercially harvested which demolishes the previous record from 2005 of 221.9 million. In Southeast Alaska, the pink salmon harvest was nearly 90 million fish. Another 10 million could have been harvested without compromising escapement goals but the processing capacity of the region was overwhelmed. Statewide, the pink harvest came in at a record 216.1 million fish. The previous record was 161 million in 2005. The estimated number of coho returning (not the catch) to Southeast Alaska this year was 5.75 million fish. Chums also came in record numbers with a troll harvest of 1.1 million, another record.
Why the massive returns? Three reasons come to mind:
1. Incredibly high levels of marine survival. Pinks and most coho spend one year at sea. Apparently between the time they left the river in spring of 2012 to when they came back in summer of 2013 they encountered a highly productive ocean. Lots of food generates faster growth rates. Big well fed salmon survive better than small underfed fish. Higher rates of survival lead to bigger schools of fish. Large schools are more effective in finding prey and avoiding predators. All of these leads to exponentially higher rates of survival and returns. Why was the ocean so productive? We’ll speculate down that road soon.
2. Uncompromised habitat throughout Alaska and most certainly in Southeast Alaska is a key ingredient in this success. A fertile ocean only produces big runs when large numbers of juvenile salmon come out of the rivers. The 2013 returns speak to the sustainable value of streams and rivers that flow through of uncut, uncompromised forests.
3. Reasonable harvest management. Alaska Department of Fish and Game seems to have a handle on how many fish can be harvested without compromising escapement goals. Are they perfect? No, but 2013 suggests that they aren’t doing too badly.