Fishing for Wild Salmon in Alaska

By Rowan Jacobsen, "Swimming Upstream," March/April 2012

Alaska’s wild salmon have been heralded as healthy, tasty and sustainable. Even better news, they’re back in record numbers. Here’s why.

"I love Salmon but can't bring myself to buy it after Fukushima..the waters are contaminated now. "

That was something I haven't heard in a long time. I write a lot about seafood, and I've grown used to listening to older fishermen say, "I'm the last in a long line; my kids don't want any part of this." The story is similar across the world: depleted stocks, desperate fishermen, ecological crisis. Cod's gone, tuna's done and sea bass and snapper are off the menu. Wild Atlantic salmon is endangered, as are many Pacific salmon runs in California, Oregon and Washington. I've come to assume that no fish stock can be intensively harvested by human beings and remain sustainable. Yet across Alaska in recent years, record-breaking salmon harvests have coincided with record-breaking returns of fish to their spawning grounds. Alaska has more salmon in its waters now than when it started keeping track more than a century ago, and prices and demand are high. "Lately they've been killing it," Bert Lewis, Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist, told me. "People are getting rich on this. In 2010, we set the record with over 70 million pink salmon harvested at basically $1 per fish. That's putting some money in the bank." Something in Alaska has gone tremendously right. And, if wild fish are to have any place in our future, we need to understand what.

Part of the reason the current good times feel so good to fishermen like Mike Poole is because there have been plenty of bad times in Alaska's commercial salmon fishery, which began in the early 1900s with canned salmon and by the 1930s was harvesting more than 100 million fish most years. There was virtually no management of when and where fish were caught, and populations crashed. By the 1950s, harvests were down to about 25 million fish. In 1959, Alaska became the 49th state and, in a move that now seems way ahead of its time, wrote sustainable management rights into its constitution, which mandated that "fish…be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained healthy yield principle." To protect the future of its salmon industry, the state limited catches, introduced hatchery fish to boost populations and in 1990 banned fish farming. It has worked. Over the past two decades, statewide harvests have averaged an incredible 150 million salmon. Some years have surpassed 200 million fish.

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