Choppy Waters
Choppy Waters
Climate change, China loom over stronger forecasted salmon runs
By Isaac Stone Simonelli

his year’s salmon runs will provide insight into the theory that a warm water anomaly in the Gulf of Alaska in 2015 was to blame for poor runs nearly everywhere in the Last Frontier (with the exception of the record-setting run of sockeye in Bristol Bay) last year.

“The very large Bristol Bay sockeye harvest, 41.9 million, was definitely the highlight of 2018. Another highlight were substantial chum salmon harvests in Southeast Alaska, 11.5 million, and Prince William Sound, 3.5 million,” says Rich Brenner, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG).

If the forecast for 2019 is realized, Alaska fishermen can look forward to a record harvest of about 29 million chum salmon during 2019, with most of this harvest predicted to come from hatchery chum salmon in Southeast Alaska.

“We are also predicting sizeable harvests of pink salmon in Prince William Sound, about 65 million; Kodiak, about 27 million; and the South Alaska Peninsula, about 20.6 million,” Brenner says. “But we are calling for a fairly small harvest of pink salmon in Southeast Alaska. Finally, the Bristol Bay sockeye harvest is expected to exceed 26 million during 2019.”

Consistently, experts point toward the record-breaking Bristol Bay sockeye run as the highlight of 2018. Though down from about 41 million, even if the forecasted 26 million run into Bristol Bay this year, it will be counted as a strong, above-average year for the world-class fishery.

“If you were a Bristol Bay fishermen, things were good; if you weren’t, on average, it was a rough season,” says Garrett Evridge, an economist with McDowell Group, an Alaska-based research firm. “The volume of salmon that we harvested was among the smallest harvest years that we’ve seen in the last thirty to forty years, but it was one of the most valuable.”

The average ex-vessel price overall for salmon was $5.20 per fish, which was significantly higher than the $3.05 paid per fish in 2017. According to McDowell Group the average ex-vessel price was $0.98 overall for salmon, with chinook pushing the price way up with a value of $5.98 per pound. Coho fetched $1.34 per pound, and sockeye was valued at $1.33 per pound. At the bottom of the price range were pinks, valued at $0.45 per pound, followed by chum at $0.78 per pound.

“The volume of salmon that we harvested was among the smallest harvest years that we’ve seen in the last thirty to forty years, but it was one of the most valuable.”
—Garrett Evridge
Economist, McDowell Group
Though chum is close to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to price, there has been a shift in the market—and marketing—of the fish.

Evridge points out that as the price of sockeye increases, it helps bolster the prices of other species of salmon—especially when Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) and others in the industry are building a market for the fish.

“ASMI has taken the charge for calling it [chum] keta, and since then it’s been pretty well accepted in the US marketplace and is also performing well internationally,” says Jeremy Woodrow, the acting director of ASMI.

Trollers have not always focused on keta; they’ve been doing it just for the last ten years or so, and still it depends on the price, Evridge says.

“It’s a sign of the increasing value for all five salmon species that it’s worth it for a troller to harvest a relatively small number of keta compared to the numbers you’d get with a seiner, because the quality of the fish—bright fish—are worth it,” Evridge says. “The data shows keta is a valued contributor to total Alaska salmon production.”

There is little leftover stock coming into the season, so things look good for the price and market for Alaska salmon in 2019, says Evridge.

“A bright spot is definitely market conditions that the volume will be sold into. Most of the indicators are pretty favorable.”

These indicators include inventory carryover (which is indicative of demand), last year’s price, and market competition, such as farmed salmon.

“You’ll often see wild Alaskan salmon being sold alongside farmed salmon from Norway or Chile,” Evridge says, noting that there is a competition there for consumers, which can impact price.

Farmed salmon prices dropped below record numbers last year—though they are still solid, says Evridge.

If market conditions remain strong for Alaska salmon, the net ex-vessel value for sockeye has the potential to be very important to the state, despite ADFG forecasting a sockeye salmon harvest for 2019 coming in 10 percent below the ten-year average.

“We always want to remember there’s a difference between actual harvest and forecasted harvest,” Evridge says. “And that difference can be 20 to 30 percent. Bristol Bay in 2018 is a good example, where the actual harvest was higher than the forecasted harvest. We don’t want to put too much emphasis on the forecasted number, but it does provide some indication.”

Another bright spot for salmon in 2019 is that it will be an odd year, which typically means a 30 percent to 50 percent larger pink salmon harvest compared to an even-numbered year, Evridge says.

“Our most accurate forecasts are generally for sockeye salmon because we have correlations linking returns from the prior year to their brood-year siblings that return this year. Thus, we have a fair amount of confidence in these predictions,” Brenner says.

“We also have confidence in the predictions for Southeast Alaska pink salmon because NOAA and ADFG have an outmigration survey that does a good job of predicting harvests the following year. However, pink salmon all return after only a single year in the ocean, making them generally more difficult to forecast than other species. Thus, we must rely upon average harvests or run sizes during recent years to make our predictions… but we would love to have additional surveys.”

China Trade War
Another major impact on the Alaska seafood industry in 2019 will be how the US/China trade war plays out. Prior to China placing a 25 percent export tax on nearly all US seafood, China was Alaska’s biggest trading partner, purchasing about a quarter of the value of all Alaska seafood. In 2017, China bought 54 percent of Alaska’s fish and shellfish products, valued at $800 million.

“Demand for salmon in China is growing in a big way,” says Andy Wink, a fisheries economist and director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. “News reports say they expect farmed salmon consumption in China to go from 90,000 metric tons [198 million pounds] this past year to around 250,000 metric tons [550 million pounds] by 2025. There’s a lot of opportunity for all wild salmon.”

“Because the export market is so important to Alaska’s seafood industry, anything that has a potential to disrupt trade is watched closely,” Woodrow says.

Woodrow explains that the tariffs could affect Alaska seafood exports in two ways: one, those that apply to Alaska seafood destined for China and the rapidly growing domestic market that ASMI has been working to develop there over the last twenty years and two, there are Alaska seafood products that are subject to tariffs reprocessed in China and destined for the United States.

Alaska seafood sales to China took a 20 percent hit in 2018 because of the new taxes, “and we expect to take a big hit from China this year,” Woodrow says.

Climate Change
In an attempt to get a grip on how the taxes have impacted the Alaska seafood industry, ASMI conducted a survey of mostly Alaska processors. Of those who responded, 65 percent said they had lost sales due to the tariffs, 50 percent reported delays in sales, 36 percent reported they lost customers, and 21 percent said they experienced unanticipated costs because of the trade conflict.

However, ASMI, working with US trade representatives, managed to get some exceptions to the US tariffs for certain species, including salmon, cod, and pollock.

“Another important question is: Why is China important to us?” Woodrow says.

He points out that the growing middle class and size of the population make China an important market for any kind of protein.

“Increase demand for your product, and you increase the value at home,” he says.

Increasing demand by bolstering efforts in existing markets and developing new ones to diversify the market for Alaska seafood is a top priority for ASMI. A three-year, $5.5 million grant from the Department of Agriculture was awarded to ASMI for just that purpose.

“We don’t have a crystal ball, but we do know that the ongoing conflict with China means we need to also look at other markets,” Woodrow says, noting that there will be increased marketing efforts in established markets such as Germany and Japan as well as China.

Additionally, ASMI is looking to use the grant money to explore opportunities in Southeast Asia and Brazil.

“The short story is that anything can mess up these important export markets,” Woodrow says, emphasizing the importance of diversifying. “We’re hoping that a trade agreement is made between the US and China and this just becomes a bad memory.”

Climate Change
Though the 2015 warm water anomaly—known as the “blob” and suspected to have severely impacted salmon returns in the Gulf of Alaska—has come to an end, scientists continue to try to understand the ramifications of climate change on Alaska stocks in the long term.

“The variability of pink salmon harvests have increased dramatically during recent years, with every large statewide harvest followed by a decline in harvest the following year. During recent years we have seen the largest pink salmon harvests in history and some of the smallest since the 1970s, and climate change is a possible driver for some portion of these vacillations,” Brenner says.

“The effects of ocean acidification on Alaska’s fisheries are potentially large and likely to increase in the future. However, these effects are also difficult to study. At present shellfish farmers on the West Coast are already making adjustments in their methods to deal with acidified water and further adjustments are likely in the future.”

Acidification of the oceans is the ongoing decrease in the pH of ocean water caused by the increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Studies have highlighted the possible implications of acidification on two important Alaska fisheries: Pacific cod and crab.

“Changing environmental conditions can impact species in multiple ways and not all life stages may respond in the same way,” says NOAA Fisheries Scientist Tom Hurst.

Hurst and a team of scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, and the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies at Oregon State University conducted two laboratory studies to evaluate larval fish sensitivity to elevated carbon dioxide levels.

The released results show that larval Pacific cod response to elevated carbon dioxide levels varies depending on its stage of development.

“Studies like this are important because most marine fish mortality occurs at the larval stage of development and the high-latitude oceans where Pacific cod and other important commercial fisheries occur are expected to be among the most vulnerable to ocean acidification,” states a NOAA release.

“We wanted to explore this because it has implications for the sustainability of Pacific cod and other important fish stocks in Alaska,” Hurst says.

Scientists have also been looking at the impact of acidification on Alaska crab. Studies focused on the effects on Tanner and blue king crab stocks in Alaska waters were released in 2016 but are ongoing.

“A lot has to do with the stage in life that a crab is exposed to more acidic conditions [lower pH levels] than normal,” says Chris Long of the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “For instance, the ocean environment that larval Tanner crabs live in is highly dynamic, with variable levels of acidity. At this age, Tanner crabs seem able to tolerate shifts in pH. But if these animals are exposed to more acidic conditions at the embryo stage, they may be less able to tolerate changes in ocean acidification as larvae.”

The study on blue king crab revealed slower growth rates and higher mortality in juveniles exposed to more acidic conditions.

“In 2013 we announced findings that lower pH levels could have profound effects on the development of Alaska red king crabs and Tanner crabs,” says Bob Foy, science and research director for the NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center and former head of the center’s Kodiak lab.

“For the last few years, we’ve been looking at the effects of ocean acidification on different life stages of Tanner and blue king crab and the projections don’t look good.

“If there are any bright spots in all of this, it is that we saw evidence that both Tanner and blue king crab species have the capacity to adapt.”

Lower levels of sea ice in the Arctic and beyond due to climate change are another area of concern, though what those effects are—and will be—is still being examined.

“Unusual and unexpected weather events during the winter of 2017/2018 resulted in the lowest ice year on record for the eastern Bering Sea,” says Elizabeth C. Siddon, who produces the Bering Sea Ecosystem Status Report for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “And, already this year, we’re seeing less ice in the northern Bering Sea then we did last year at this time.”

Because of the previously unprecedented low sea ice levels, Siddon and her team gave a “heads-up” presentation to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in October—they usually don’t present until December.

The lack of sea ice and its impacts on the ecosystem in the northern and southern Bering Sea are thought to be connected to a number of red flags observed in the ecosystem last year, including a large die-off of seabirds.

In 2017, NOAA’s summer bottom trawl survey turned up significant amounts of pollock and Pacific cod in the northern Bering Sea, which was irregular.

“Typically when the ice came down in the winter, those fish presumably would move back down over the southern shelf, but without that signal of the sea ice coming down the question was, ‘Did they stay in the northern Bering Sea?’” Siddon says. “If they stayed, was there enough food for them? Are they now reproducing over the northern Bering Sea shelf? If they are, are those spawning populations viable?”

Last year’s bottom trawl, surface trawl, and acoustic surveys again documented the presence of pollock and Pacific cod in the northern Bering Sea, Siddon writes in the Bering Sea Ecosystem Status Report.

“Pollock biomass declined slightly from 2017 to 2018. However, more than 50 percent of Pacific cod biomass in the eastern Bering Sea was found over the northern portion of the shelf,” she writes.

To compensate for these findings, Pacific cod in the northern Bering Sea, which is thought to be part of the same spawning population, was included in the most recent stock assessment, says Siddon.

“The effects of ocean acidification on Alaska’s fisheries are potentially large and likely to increase in the future. However, these effects are also difficult to study.”
—Rich Brenner
Biologist, ADFG
Another impact of the lack of sea ice is that it makes it difficult to predict when herring will begin spawning in Bristol Bay, says Bert Lewis, the Central Region supervisor of the Division of Commercial Fisheries for ADFG.

“When the sea ice would go away, it would mean things were warming up, and when you see it go over 40, that’s when they’re going to start moving to spawn,” Lewis says, noting that he is already seeing a bit of a warm water anomaly, which could indicate that spawning will start earlier this year.

“So we will be telling industry, better get ready it could be early. Nobody knows when it’s going to happen… A couple years ago, they started spawning and there was nobody there from industry to fish. Not a boat in sight.”

Lewis points out that Alaska’s fisheries are in a state of dynamic flux, with many of the patterns that used to be fairly predictable becoming noticeably less so.

“Forecasts are inherently uncertain. You kind of make an educated estimate of what we think is going to happen based on all these different factors,” Lewis says. “And [forecasting] really originated in Bristol Bay, and it was important there because it’s so remote that having an idea of the magnitude of the return allows industry to anticipate how many resources to deploy in a region.”

Certainly from crabbers eyeing dwindling stocks of king crabs—and surprisingly robust snow crab stocks—to those preparing for pollock and salmon this year, there is a level of optimistic uncertainty about what the year, as well as their nets and pots, will hold.