How many salmon come out of the Tongass National Forest? Someone asked Tongass Fisheries Program Manager Ron Medel that question, and the result was a slide show presentation that he’s given throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Medel gave that presentation again for a recent Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce lunch.
It’s fairly simple to find out how many salmon are caught in Alaska each year, but the question that Medel set out to answer was a little more specific. He was looking for the percentage of wild, non-hatchery salmon that are caught in Tongass National Forest waters each year.
Not British Columbia fish. Not Southcentral fish. Tongass fish.
Medel found the answer, which is the point of his presentation, but he saved that for the end. Before getting there, he provided some interesting details about salmon in Southeast Alaska.
For example, which of Alaska’s five salmon species makes up the largest share of fish brought to the docks? It’s pinks, by a landslide, and Southeast Alaska lands the most pinks.
“Sockeye come in second, then the chum, coho and king. Just a sliver, a mere sliver of the total harvest, 500,000 plus on average for the past 19 years (are kings),” he said.
When considered by value, though, second-place sockeye jumps the line into first-place, which is why some of the northern fishery areas tend to bring in more money: They’ve got the reds.
That’s all background, though. What about the main question: Tongass fish? Well, just hold on.
“We have to figure where the contributions of these other fish that are not Tongass fish coming from,” Medel said. “So we have to take out the numbers from the Canadian portions of the Stikine, the Taku … and there are some contributions coming from, particularly the far end of Southeast here, the Nass and the Skeena.”
And then there are hatchery fish from throughout the Pacific Northwest, including hatcheries in Alaska.
“In 1980, there were 8.7 million chum released from 8 sites in Southeast Alaska. In 2010, there was 458 million chum released from 19 locations,” he said.
The state department of Fish and Game tracks fish pretty closely, and Medel said that department estimates how many landed fish come from hatcheries versus wild stocks. About 95 percent of pinks are wild.
“On the other hand, 80 percent of the chum right now in the Southeast Alaska harvest are hatchery fish,” he said. “Coho are mostly wild, 80 percent; sockeye mostly wild; kings not even close (5 percent). We just don’t have a lot of king habitat, the big-river habitat.”
So, we’re almost at the answer to the big question. Using studies from Fish and Game, and other research out there, Medel made some spreadsheets, extrapolated data, and…
“That’s the number when you blend it all together: 79 percent of the annual harvest in Southeast Alaska are wild fish from the national forest,” he said.
Following the presentation, one audience member asked Medel about genetically modified farmed salmon, and how that might affect Alaska’s fisheries. He said that escaped farmed fish always are a concern, but another major concern is they will compete in the same market as Alaska’s wild-caught fish.
Alaskans know that wild fish are better.
“But it’s hard to tell that to a consumer, because you go into the Costcos and see row after row of this beautiful, glistening fillet, it’s hard to compete with that,” he said. “It outsells Alaska salmon three to one. And if you have this genetic fish coming on even quicker, it could really put a dip in the market.”
And that could harm Southeast Alaska quite a bit. When you combine commercial, sport and subsistence fishing, the salmon industry in Southeast Alaska has an economic impact that’s just shy of a billion dollars.
The U.S Food and Drug Administration is taking comments through late April on genetically modified salmon that biotech company AquaBounty wants to sell for human consumption. For more information or to leave a comment, go to http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/NewsEvents/CVMUpdates/ucm339270.htm