Before the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989 and smeared Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of crude oil, salmon catches in the sheltered waters in the curve of Alaska's underbelly had been averaging less than 10 million fish per year all the way back to statehood.
Since the tanker accident, in the wake of what was North America's biggest oil spill up until the still unfolding Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the annual salmon catch in the Sound is averaging more than four times that number.
The average annual harvest for the most recent decade-long period stands near 45 million salmon per year.
How salmon harvests in the Sound doubled, and then doubled again, has everything to do with human alterations to the environment. But not in the form of spilled oil.
"It's the hatchery fish,'' said John Hilsinger, commercial fisheries supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "There's a real large number of hatchery fish.''
When it comes to the Sound, the oil doesn't appear to have changed much in regards to salmon, but the hand of man certainly has been messing with nature big time in other ways. The Sound has changed radically due to human-spilled fish. The ecology, in fact, has been so radically altered that state scientists have started to raise questions about when enough hatchery salmon are enough.
"Our obligation to manage wild (salmon) stocks in Prince William Sound is very challenged at current levels of population,'' an April memorandum from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game warns. "Department straying studies suggest that at current production levels, hatchery salmon straying may pose an unacceptable risk to wild salmon stocks.''
In that memo responding to a new request to expand Sound hatchery operations even further, state fisheries biologists hint at fears that the wild salmon that survived the mess of an accidental oil spill could be decimated by well-intentioned annual salmon spills. Others think those concerns are overblown.
"I don't think we've done any damage to the ecosystem in Prince William Sound,'' said William Smoker, a respected federal scientist and university professor. "It's pretty hard to detect any ecological effect. I found some aspects of that Fish and Game memo troubling.''
What has been done in the Sound that is of greatest importance, Smoker said, is the creation of an economy. Before the hatcheries came on the scene, one out of every five summers there weren't enough salmon to even prosecute a Sound salmon fishery. Every fifth summer was -- for lack of a better comparison -- an Exxon Valdez summer with fishermen ordered to stay in port.
"You can't have an economy based on salmon fishing if every fifth summer you have to shut down,'' Smoker said.
Hatcheries changed this. To truly get an idea of how much they changed this, you actually need to go back more than a decade before the Exxon oil spill to what historically existed in the inland waterway south of Anchorage, the state's urban center, and west of Valdez, the shipping port at the end of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Back when the Sound was truly wild -- back when the population of all of Alaska was about the same as that of Anchorage today and the oil terminal in Valdez had yet to be built -- the average annual salmon harvest for the Sound hovered around 3.3 million fish per year.
Not until man started messing with nature did that begin to change. A hatchery program backed by the state but later turned wholly over to a private business -- the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., a commercial fisherman-funded cooperative -- started boosting salmon runs in the mid-1970s.
This was before the oil business took over the economy and bumped billions into state coffers. Prior to that, salmon fishing in large part fueled the Alaska economy. And with salmon fisheries floundering in the 1970s, there was huge political pressure to do something. "They were going to build hatcheries come hell or high water,'' said Doug Eggers, the state's former chief fisheries scientist. The state started that process, then brought private, non-profit corporations funded by commercial fishermen into the act all over the state.
Between 1976 and 1989, state and PWSAC-spawned salmon combined to push the average annual catch in the Sound up to close to 20 million fish -- primarily pinks -- per season as salmon production shifted from fish bellies and stream gravel to human hands and plastic trays. There appeared to be in the Sound the ideal marriage of imperfect nature and smart-minded nature tampering on the part of humans. The islet-sprinkled waters of the Sound, sheltered from the turbulent North Pacific by towering Hinchinbrook and Montague islands, produced a bounty of plankton on which young salmon could feed, but the Sound was sorely lacking streams in which young salmon could be spawned.
The mountains around the Sound rise steeply. Many of the creeks are short and blocked not far upstream by waterfalls. This was true even before Alaska's Good Friday earthquake of 1964 played havoc with the region. The quake just made things worse. It lifted some shorelines several feet and further blocked salmon from potential spawning areas.
As a result, biologists Eggers and Smoker in 1992 noted "the unusual prevalence of intertidal spawning on the tectonically active, steep shores of the Sound.'' About half the wild salmon in the Sound, they reported, were being spawning in streams running across tidal flats.
Spawning intertidally is the least productive of ways for salmon to lay their eggs. It is also the reason some biologists thought the Exxon Valdez spill might play havoc with Sound salmon, although there was little evidence to show much effect on fish from oil in previous spills elsewhere.
As it turned out the effects of the oil were limited on salmon in the Sound, too. The spill likely reduced production of young fish in 1989, but lingering oil -- some of which remains in Sound beaches to this day -- does not seem to harm fish.
"Even eggs in direct contact with oil in the sediment resulted in tissue PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) loads well below the lethal threshold concentrations established in laboratory bioassays,'' concluded a 1996 study by salmon researcher Ernest L. Brannon from the University of Idaho. "These results indicate that petroleum hydrocarbons dissolved from oil deposits on intertidal beaches are not at concentrations that pose toxic risk to incubating pink salmon eggs."
The incubating salmon might not be at risk from oil, but once hatched, state fisheries biologists now contend, they could well be at risk of losing out to hatchery fish in the deadly game of survival. Little wild fish now face competition for food from millions of tiny competitors raised to be bigger and stronger within the shelter of hatcheries.
Does it matter if the little wild fish lose? Nobody really knows. Backers of the human-raised fish note that hatchery brood stock for the Sound has been carefully selected to represent the region's wild fish. If the genes of all the fish remain the same and the only thing that changes is the fitness of the fish at the time they go back to the ocean, "is that really a problem or not?" Hilsinger asked. "(The hatchery fish) have been selected to be as close as possible to the wild fish.''
There is, however, enough concern about genetic shifts in fish from years of hatchery production that Fish and Game is now starting a detailed genetics study. It is needed, researchers say, not just for the Sound but for other hatchery operations adjacent to the Sound.
"A genetics review finds that (hatchery expansion) has clear potential to damage the Copper River salmon genetic resource,'' concluded Ron Josephson, section chief of Fisheries Monitoring, Permitting and Development for the state. "Pathology (also) identified areas of concern for the potential increase of disease transmission.'' The Copper River is a big glacier drainage that starts just outside of the entrance to the Sound south of the fishing community of Cordova and drains a vast segment of Interior Alaska south of the Alaska Range and into most of the Wrangell-St. Elias range.
Copper River salmon are the best-marketed fish in Alaska. Sold as the creme de la creme of Alaska wild salmon, they attract early season prices of up to $38 per pound in Seattle fresh seafood markets even though not all of the Copper River fish are wild. The Gulkana Hatchery, a state facility now leased to PWSAC, has been producing Copper River salmon in the Interior more than 250 miles from the ocean since the mid-1970s. Those salmon have for years helped boost the natural run to the Copper.
PWSAC this year made a pitch to Fish and Game that the boost should be upped, too.
The Cordova-based organization proposed dumping millions more sockeye salmon fry into Crosswind, Summit and Paxon lakes in the Interior, and starting to stock Monsoon and Ten Mile lakes with millions more sockeyes to further increase returns of valuable Copper River fish. Josephson noted Monsoon and Ten Mile are upstream of important king salmon spawning areas, which could result in a hatchery-introduced virus washing downstream to infect those fish. And Glennallen sport fisheries biologist Mark Somerville cautioned in a written report that almost nothing is known as to how the sockeye fry pumped into Crosswind Lake, 10 million per year; Summit Lake, 6 million per year; and Paxson Lake, 6 million per year, affect natural populations of lake trout, whitefish, burbot and other species in those waters. Those species of fish attract little attention. There are no commercial fisheries for them, what angler interest there is focuses mainly on the lake trout, and of course, there are no fish "viewers" pleading the case for untampered nature as there are when it comes to managing Alaska's charismatic megafauna -- bears, moose, wolves, caribou and the like. Even most state biologists seem largely unconcerned about lake trout and other freshwater fish, but they are clearly starting to grow nervous about the large volumes of hatchery salmon.
"Given the weight of literature documenting the impacts of hatchery fish on wild stocks,'' they concluded in a 51-page report on the Sound hatchery program in April, "the question is not whether releases will impact wild stocks, but whether they can be mitigated through management.''
This presents an odd dichotomy in a state where commercial fishermen fought to ban fish farms for fears farmed fish might escape their pens, intermingle with wild fish, and in that way spread infection or undermine wild fish genetics. At the same time, an organization funded by commercial fishermen has been annually turning huge volumes of hatchery fish loose in the ocean to comingle with wild fish. In some cases, state biologists said, there are so now many hatchery fish that they've moved into streams and begun to squeeze wild fish out of their spawning grounds.
Some once-wild pink and chum salmon streams, the state report said, are today filled with up to 96 percent hatchery fish. On average, the report estimates, wild pink and chum salmon runs in streams all over the Sound are now made up of 18 percent hatchery pinks and 14 percent hatchery chums.
Man's oil might not be everywhere in the Sound anymore, but man's fish are. This raises troubling questions. There is, the state report on hatcheries cautions, a "growing body of evidence suggesting hatchery salmon production could come at a substantial cost to other fisheries and wild salmon stocks.''
Smoker, who sits on the PWSAC board, said he's not so sure of that. He considers the evidence pretty thin, and notes that the latest PWSAC to expand production would only take hatchery levels to where they were in the 1990s when PWSAC asked to have them reduced because so much salmon was being produced that fishermen couldn't market all the fish. Markets are better now, he said, and the evidence against hatcheries is weak or ambiguous. So why not do more to boost the salmon economy in the Sound? What's wrong with a bigger fish spill?
That is a hard question to answer. A lot of people think helping out nature by adding things -- can you say "bird feeder"? -- is a good thing. Only when it comes to subtracting things -- can you say "aerial wolf hunt"? -- or adding ugly things -- can you say "oil spill"? -- do people get upset about nature tampering.
Even officials at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- having originally questioned the hatchery expansion -- are now in the process of approving most of PWSAC's requests for expansion. What else are they going to do?
"You're not going to shut down the hatcheries,'' Eggers said. "The Sound is supported by hatcheries now. The (fishing) industry depends on hatcheries.''
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.