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Was Alaska's king salmon crash a 'black swan' nightmare or sign of the times?

Suzanna Caldwell
Courtesy Angela Addiego

The phrase “black swan” come up again and again during the second day of the Alaska Chinook Salmon Symposium in downtown Anchorage on Tuesday.

Are the depressing chinook salmon runs that plagued Alaska this summer merely a blip in the overall picture? Is it a “black swan event,” a theory often used in philosophy that describes a surprise event that, in hindsight, might have been prevented?

Many think that no matter what happened to harm Alaska’s biggest and most-prized salmon, odds are it happened in the ocean. Does it have to do with food? Distribution of fish? Global warming? All of the above?

“A bunch of bad things all came together that usually don't happen at the same time,” said Dr. Phil Mundy, director of the NOAA Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau. “We weren't there, we weren't looking, so we don't know.”

More scientists, biologists and Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers met for the second and final day of the session at the Egan Center. They were trying to piece together what they don't know about chinook to complete an analysis.

While Monday's session focused more on what was known, Tuesday’s delved into specifics, with hours spent with experts -- from in and outside Alaska -- discussing exactly happens after chinook enter Alaska waterways.

Ocean agenda

The morning's session focused on the ocean, one of the biggest question marks during two days of discussions. King salmon migrate all along Alaska's coastline, through the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and even down the Aleutian chain.

While reds, chums and pink salmon return by the millions, the precious kings dribble in by the thousands, even in productive years. None of five big king rivers where the Alaska Department of Fish and Game counts kings saw more than 111,000 of the big salmon this summer. According to weir counts taken upstream, the big producer was the Nushagak River (110,177 returning fish) in Southwest Alaska, followed by the Yukon (106,731), Kenai (21,141) and Deshka (14,088).

Scientists say runs for the other salmon are faring better because different species have different growth and feeding patterns.

So why are the chinook bearing the brunt of the problem? It's complicated.

Changing water temperatures mean changing food systems. Some chinook seem to eat more larval pollock offal, so the chinook may be following them, perhaps getting picked up in the process as bycatch by commercial fishermen in trawlers. Changes in water temperatures could affect salmon food and, in turn, the size and growth of the fish, which can exceed 90 pounds.

But the bigger issue seems to be that salmon are living closer to shore. Monitoring those fish is difficult, according to Kate Myers, a retired biologist from the University of Washington.

“The fish are coming out just under the ice or just after breakup, so to be there in those rugged environmental conditions, with ice coming down the river, makes sampling salmon a really difficult prospect,” she said.

Even rivers like the Nushagak, the Western Alaska waterway that saw a relative chinook boom this year, leave scientists stumped. It’s hard to pinpoint, some say, exactly why that stock boomed the same year others busted.

Identifying different chinook stocks would make a huge difference in figuring out why some found food and others didn’t, according to Eric Volk, chief commercial fisheries scientist for the state.

“That's a real key to this whole thing,” he said.

Pricey research

A lot of research on juvenile chinook happens after many fish have died, often via bycatch. While it would be ideal to follow chinook across the open ocean, Myers said that would be both difficult and expensive. It generally costs up to $15,000 a day to fund a research vessel in the open ocean. Multiply that by the weeks or months needed to conduct research, and it adds up quickly.

Myers said her research with the University of Washington was funded for 20 years, and the maximum amount of funding in any given year was $300,000.

“It's not a gigantic amount of money, but enough to keep a core staff of researchers going,” she said. Funding, which often involves federal or international partnerships, became a core issue Tuesday.

Planning done now will help Fish and Game determine how much money it needs for chinook research starting in fiscal year 2014.

Fish and Game Comissioner Cora Campbell noted that much of the research being discussed is funded at the federal level.

“We're always working and talking with our federal colleagues about their budget situation, our budget situation so we can try to synergize as much as possible to minimize any duplication while leveraging funding … to get as much bang for everybody's buck,” she said.

Mundy said it's going to take strong leaders to ensure Alaska receives the funds needed for fisheries research. “We need leadership like the namesake of our institution if we're going to make our way into the 21st century,” said Mundy, director of the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute. “We need a vision on marine research and we need some people who will work toward that end.”

Downloading salmon data

For Robert Clark, session chair and chief fisheries scientist for the state Division of Sport Fish, the symposium came down to a few key issues.

  • Patterns in chinook abundance – or scarcity – differ across the state and the social and economic issues surrounding the declines are drastic.
  • First-year winter survival is critical to chinook, and a near-shore marine survey may help scientists better understand marine survival.
  • More local and traditional knowledge is needed to understand the context of the downturn. Working with Native groups will be crucial.

Written comments will be taken online through Nov. 9. Volk said Fish and Game would then take a month to complete its analysis before the Alaska Legislature convenes in January.

“Every salmon is a low cost, biological, autonomous underwater vehicle,” Mundy said. “We just need to learn how to download the data.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com