Monday, December 26, 2011

On Craig Medred's PWSAC Article in the Dispatch

PWSAC Esther Bay Hatchery
Sunday, the Alaska Dispatch published a long article by Craig Medred, the subject of which is hatchery-reared salmon, more specifically, those reared at Prince William Sound hatcheries.  In the article, Medred raises concern about ways hatchery-reared fish might displace wild stocks in ecosystems similar to that of Prince William Sound, by bringing up issues that have been discovered in ecosystems quite different from those of the Sound:
Fears of some state fisheries biologists that turning Prince William Sound into one big, salmon ranch might threaten the remaining wild stocks there gained some weight this week. Oregon researchers reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the genes of steelhead trout -- a close relative -- appear easily altered in a hatchery.

Mark Christie, lead researcher on the work done at Oregon State University, painted a portrait of "evolution at warp speed" in the sterile, environmentally controlled trays of a hatchery.

"It's similar to the process by which wolves were transformed into dogs," he told MSNBC. "That's all that's occurring here, except it's occurring at a really rapid time scale."

Whether the 11,000-square-mile Sound -- smeared by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 -- should be home to piscatorial wolves or dogs has been a subject of debate for years now between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association (PWSAA) [sic - it is Prince William Wound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC)].
Medred's article, mostly through omission,  fails to put the early history of the concept of the fisher-owned hatchery system into perspective.  It also neglects commenting upon the many debates, controversies and arguments that have come up in the decades since this largest user-run salmon hatchery system in the history of the world has come into existence.  Medred does pose some interesting questions, though, and his article is well worth reading.

His concern about Pink salmon showing up in  streams or areas other than those from which they originated has been addressed many times before.  This is how salmon spread.  They find a new stream, perhaps recently freed from glacial cover, and move in.  They find too many fish in their home stream and move along the shore until they find one less clogged.  A storm throws them off in the last week before homing in, and they make do as they can.  This has been going on in Alaska for hundreds of thousands of years.  And Cordova fishers have brought this possibility up many times - from the important set of meetings in 1974 that led to the creation of PWSAC, until the present.  Medred's observations about how PWSAC's hatcheries have stabilized PWS salmon fisheries are solid, though they offer nothing new:
The goal of the PWSAC, of course, has never been to save wild salmon runs but to save a segment of the Alaska economy. In that, the organization has been a huge success.
"PWSAC played a critical role in the recent economic recovery of the Alaska salmon industry," claimed a study released this spring. "Since 2006, PWSAC has produced 1 in 4 of Alaska's commercially caught pink salmon. Large harvests of PWSAC pinks have provided the industry with the volume and economies of scale needed to fulfill demand."
My first year as a boat owner in the Cordova salmon fishery (Area E) was 1974.  I partnered with my friend KC.  I bought the gillnetter-seiner Swanee.  KC had the licenses.  We fished the boat as  gillnetter at the Copper, Bering and Coghill Rivers.  We set off of Islands from Wingham to Grass to Esther.  We caught about 2,400 salmon, mostly Reds.  At the same time, we had Andy the netmaker install a new bunt (the heavy end, made to hold the pocketed fish) and Dog strip (additional, heavy mesh webbing at the bottom of the net) to our seine.  But -as Medred observes:
Before hatcheries arrived in the Sound, there weren’t enough salmon to prosecute a fishery there in one out of every five summers. Every fifth summer was -- for lack of a better comparison -- an Exxon Valdez summer, with fishermen ordered to stay in port.
That is what happened in 1974.  The thousands of dollars we put into the seine went to naught - at least for that year.   The Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided to not open the Sound for seining that year.

Medred neglects to relate the importance of the profound changes the 1964 Good Friday earthquake wrought on Prince William Sound, and other areas around Cordova.  PWS was subject to large uplifts and sinkings of lands and the land under waters.  The Cordova Razor clam industry all but vanished overnight.  Sloughs and beaches off the Copper and Bering Rivers became even more shallow than before the quake.  The PWS Pink runs were adversely effected more than any other southcentral Alaska fishery.  PWSAC was a much a response to this physical event as to anything.

In the late summer, fall and early winter of 1975, at the same time Valdez was gearing up into oil pipeline construction mode, Cordova was gearing up to ship the equipment from there down to Sawmill Bay, for the building of the first of PWSAC's hatcheries.  I was working part-time as an expeditor for PWSAC, and volunteering for them on some of my time off from fishing and working for KLAM, Cordova's radio station.

At the time, Cordova was getting close to the tail end of what had been a year-round boom created by the growth of the winter Tanner (Snow) crab industry.   In the 1970s,  St. Elias Ocean Products, Morpac, North Pacific and New England Fish Company all took deliveries of Tanner crab through the winters.  They employed over 150 people among them, through the January to April period.

At the same time, associated with the drive to get the fisher-owned hatcheries going, some fishers were seeking better ways to market local products, particularly Copper River Reds.  The University of Alaska Cordova branch - Prince William Sound Community College - began offering courses in aquaculture in 1975.  They were well-attended.  The Sea Gant program offered courses in ways to add value to fish catch, and spurred innovative marketing concepts.

Cordova was and is full of contrarians.  Perhaps the most remarkable among those wondering what all the new hatcheries might do to the PWS ecosystem was longtime iconoclast Stan Samuelson.  He speculated as early a 1973 that when the hatcheries came on line, managers would be in competition with each other to be the most productive, which would lead to releases of millions of young salmon from the hatcheries into PWS at the time they judged to be optimum for survival.  This would lead to the hatchery fish crowding out the wild stocks from food sources, such as early plankton blooms, as water temperatures reached thermocline.  When, in the early 1980s, some PWS wild runs came in small compared to the hatchery fish, Stan's supporters came up with a "Stan Was Right" bumper sticker.  A couple of years later, the wild fish came back as big as or larger than the hatchery returns.  A new bumper sticker emerged - "Was Stan Right?"

The strength of Medred's Christmas PWS salmon article is that it raises important questions about rapid evolution of species.  Its weakness is its lack of historical perspective on how long Cordovans have been aware that new, complex issues would emerge from the creation of such a large new element into a somewhat closed ecosystem.

Medred has written about PWSAC often in the past, and I've been critical of some of that writing.  Over the years, he seems to have given Cordovans less credit for their accomplishments than they probably deserve.  And his apologia for oil company disasters in Cordova's back yard go all the way back to August, 1989, while his dismissive views on just how pragmatic Cordovans can be has often struck me as emblematic of what one might call "Anchorage-based Chauvinism."

Medred's articles can be a treasure trove of fascinating information, as some parts of his Christmas article demonstrate.   With a little more research on the history of PWSAC's concern over ecological issues, the article would have been much more meaningful.


Anonymous said...

I've seen multiple years with millions of unharvested pinks wasting away in front of PWSAC hatcheries, looking for a place to go. Those hatchery pinks, after the canneries had their case pack and stopped buying, and PWSAC had made their cost recovery, then became the State's "common property" problem. These fish inundated area streams, superimposing their spawning atop previously spawned wild redds. They spawned well over a month past the time when their wild counterparts had spawned, meaning their spring outmigrations would not reflect what eons of time and nature had bred into their wild fish. PWSAC is simply a "more is better" fish growing organization. Any efforts by PWSAC to do what is right for the wild fish of Alaska is at the insisteence of ADF&G, not a result of PWSAC's beneficient corporate attitude.

EJ Cheshier said...

Really good article Phil. I guess you'd have to be a fisherman and have wanted yourself and your family to have a better chance at eking out an existence than in those really bleak years after the Quake to relate.