Feds, States Pouring Millions of Dollars into Boosting Declining Pacific Salmon, Steelhead Runs

sockeye salmon
The average sockeye salmon size in Bristol Bay this year was 4.5 pounds per fish, down from 5.1 pounds in 2020, according to a recent report. File photo courtesy of Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game.

For Alaska’s Bristol Bay salmon commercial fishery, 2021 was another robust season, with deliveries of an estimated 40.5 million of the Bay’s famed wild sockeyes.

Statewide through late September, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preliminary harvest data showed 226.3 million salmon delivered to processors, including 156.5 million pinks, nearly 55 million sockeyes, 12 million chums, 2.4 million cohos and 247,000 Chinooks.

Still, there were signs of concern even in Bristol Bay which, with its nine major river systems, comprises the largest commercial sockeye salmon-producing region in the world.

“In Bristol Bay, average size is at 4.5 pounds per sockeye this year, down from 5.1 pounds in 2020,” fisheries consultant Dan Lesh noted in a late July report for McKinley Research Group. Lesh produces weekly in-season reports on the commercial salmon fisheries on behalf of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Keta salmon, Lesh noted in the same report, are in short supply, “with cumulative harvests up a bit from 2020, but still at less than half of the typical harvest at this point in the summer.”

In a mid-September update, Lesh observed that the 2021 commercial salmon harvest numbers were large, but low average fish sizes led to much less impressive harvests and revenues.

“Year-to-date harvest numbers are now up 20% compared to 2020 (2019 for pink salmon) and up 15% compared to pre-season forecasts,” he wrote. “Forecasts have been exceeded for sockeye and pink salmon, but are not expected to be reached for keta, coho and king salmon.”

After a summer keta harvest that was generally poor, fall runs proved fairly strong, producing since Aug. 1 among the three largest fall keta harvests in the last decade, Lesh said.

The developments in Alaska, coupled with the hit salmon populations have taken throughout the west, have prompted millions in dollars of investment from federal and state governments to stimulate recovery.

Alaska’s Yukon River, whose wild chum and king salmon runs have provided commercial and subsistence harvests for generations of Alaska Native people, was closed to all commercial and subsistence fishing in 2021 for lack of abundance. Residents were left to rely on donations of wild salmon coming in from processors in Bristol Bay and Kodiak, who collaborated with Seattle area-based nonprofit SeaShare to get transportation donated from the U.S. Coast Guard and private commercial truckers and air cargo entities. The state also pitched in to buy fish and help get it to Yukon River villages.

Donations though late September were hardly enough to make up for what Yukon River residents generally caught in their own subsistence fisheries, said Jack Schultheis, general manager of Kwik’Pak Fisheries at Emmonak, on the Lower Yukon.

Small Sums Speculation

Why had the keta salmon returned in such small numbers?

There was a lot of speculation, ranging from the impact of hatchery fish to how many salmon were being caught incidentally to other directed fisheries in the Bering Sea, but nobody had conclusive evidence of any specific causes. 

“Salmon have always been a staple of our diet and essential for the food security of the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region,” said Vivian Korthuis, CEO of the Association of Village Council Presidents, the tribal consortium representing 56 member tribes. AVCP, which has worked on regional and statewide efforts on salmon issues going back to 1991, wants the fishery declared a disaster and a federal field hearing held on the state of salmon in Alaska.

Alaska is not alone in dealing with declining numbers of salmon, which are also having an impact on fisheries economies in Washington, Oregon and California.

Researchers are facing an uphill battle of managing for sustainable salmon fisheries hard hit by a combination of factors ranging from climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species and the impact of the salmon bycatch in other commercial fisheries.

“Things are changing very quickly in the marine and freshwater environment,” said Peter Bangs, assistant director of commercial fisheries in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“There are no easy solutions,” said Eric Hartstein, senior policy coordinator for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, “but I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t optimistic.”

In California, which has been hard hit by drought during a long hot summer, “the main focus is to carry out actions and tasks identified in the NOAA Salmonid Recovery Plans; specifically, we focus on restoring ecological processes,” said Tim Chorey, state coordinator for the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program.

“CDFW is optimistic about salmonid recovery despite all of the stressors,” Chorey said. “We have seen coho in streams this year that they were once extirpated from.”

“It’s not any one thing,” Susan Zemek of the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office commented.

“We destroyed a lot of salmon habitat when we were growing as a state,” she explained. “In Washington the population grew, and developed along areas where salmon were. We took trees off next to the river, put in a lot of culverts. We took tree stumps and logs out of rivers. We thought that was a good thing way back when.”

Grant Funding

The Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board on Sept. 24 awarded $21 million in grants to aid in the recovery of salmon, including repairing degraded habitat in rivers, removing barriers blocking salmon from reaching the ocean and conserving pristine habitat.

The grants announcement itself acknowledges that as Washington’s population grew salmon dwindled, so much so that by the end of the 20th century the federal government had declared species in nearly three-fourths of the state as threatened or endangered. Washington’s Legislature created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board in 1999 to determine how best to distribute state and federal funds for salmon recovery.

Grant recipients will be contributing over $19.2 million in matching resources, including staff labor, donations and equipment use.

Washington Gov, Jay Inslee noted that salmon “are important to every Washingtonian, whether they spend time fishing, eat salmon, rely on salmon for their business or use salmon in their cultural celebrations. It’s imperative that we improve the areas salmon need, and these grants help do that,” he said.

This year Washington’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board grants, ranging in size from $79,000 to $1.9 million, went to 105 projects in 29 of the state’s 39 counties. “Without this funding, we simply wouldn’t be able to save salmon, which are such a critical part of our Northwest culture, economy and quality of life,” Board Chair Jeff Breckel said.

The Wahkiakum Conservation district will use its $79,000 grant to design improvements to fish passage at the tide gate under Oneida Road in Deep River, to benefit chum, coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, all of which are listed as species threatened with extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The $1.9 million for Pacific County includes four grants to restore salmon habitat, including one to place wood, such as tree root wads and logs, in the lower Forks Creek to provide places for fish to rest and feed, as well as hide from predators.

The wood is also expected to slow the creek, thereby reducing erosion and allowing small rocks to settle to the bottom, creating habitat for salmon to spawn. The logs will change the flow of the creek, creating riffles and pools, giving salmon more varied habitat. The creek is used by Chinook, coho and chum salmon and steelhead. Another Pacific County grant will allow for removal of a barrier to fish passage that will reestablish Howard Creek to its historical channel.

Under the same grant the Pacific Conservation District will replant the area to reestablish healthy plants along the creek, which is used by Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho all benefit in their efforts to reverse the decline of salmon populations through the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (PCSRF), a competitive grant program funded by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. PCSRF grants have directly helped in stabilizing at-risk populations and setting the stage for their recovery. The grants also attract additional state and local dollars to match their funding.

Since 2000, PCSRF has awarded an average of $74 million annually, with contributions from state and local partners of $1.7 billion. That’s roughly $1.30 in local and state dollars leveraged for $1 in PCSRF funds.

To date, over 13,700 projects have been implemented for restoring salmon habitat, removing barriers to fish passage and improved water quality. Some funds are also spent to monitor and track progress of restoration investments.

“I would love to say at some point we wouldn’t have to do this anymore, but I do see this as something that is going to take generations,” Hartstein said. “It took generations for us to get to that point and it will take generations to solve it.”

Still, he is upbeat about the work ahead.

“I see so many people across Oregon not only doing the work on the ground,” he remarked, “but engaging in their communities who are doing more beyond habitat restoration work, particularly local groups doing local work with constituent landowners and the broader community, finding local solutions to problems.”

“There are a lot of challenges with climate change,” added Alaska’s Bangs. “In some areas we have made some noticeable progress, but it’s an ongoing challenge.”