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Changing Tides : A new blog post on the marine environment written by USRENEW NEWS Reporter Katherine Cart

 # 5  Fishing Boat Dispatch 

 April 22,2021

Prince William Sound is a quiet place. Storms in the Gulf of Alaska die on the western edges of islands; Montague, Hitchinbrook and Hawkins Islands rise like barbicans about the calm inlets. When one flies low over the Sound, little islands appear as shadows stretched westward: storm waves crush beaches from craggy outcrop. On the leeward side rise unblunted cliffs. At the scooped back of the Sound, one can, in most seasons, drive aluminum skiffs for miles on flat water, jigging for halibut and pulling from 30 fathoms by hand shrimp pots in which an octopus is more likely to be found than shrimp. Treed mountains rise up from the water, are striated by waterfall from glacial seeps, summits. In winter, the bays beneath slush are aquamarine, incredibly clear – the season of rot not yet begun – and the hills are stilled beneath a fathom of snow. The winter nights are long: sun up and down occur near the middle of the working day. In clear dawns and twilights, if one stands in view of the sweep of the Sound, all the snowed islands blaze in alpenglow. On Esther Island, where storms rarely come, the winter sun flits around the periphery of the bay, slinking behind mountain ridge. There is a small cluster of buildings on Esther Island, in which a dozen or so people live and work, hatching and releasing Chum salmon[1] by the millions each year. In the darkest months, daylight is the blued shadow of the mountain across the bay, and night is, with clear skies and luck, the greenish aurora borealis beyond the humped blocks of snowed peaks. Strong moons reflect silver on frozen waterfalls.

I first arrived to Esther Island in a February snow squall. Nothing moved for months, save the ravens and the flitting Coho the birds picked from our raceways[2]. April then opened spring in one day: at the western hem of sinking snow fields, in a juniper copse, a small grey spider had hung her web across the ice. The next morning, I heard the first returning gulls, raucous, self-assured; stoneflies swarmed low over the snow. Life and death are in slow riot in the Sound.

If you spend a winter on Esther Island, you’ll mark time by snow melt, sun’s shift, the budding swells of Chum salmon runs[3]. At the hatchery, we were especially attuned to the return of the anadromous fish; spawning salmon run midsummer, when only the distant Chugach Range still holds snow. After a half decade meandering the Pacific, Chum salmon school en masse in the sheltered bay. Their silvering begins to revert to juvenile colors: mauve, subdued green, sometimes a dull, deep plum. Dorsums of bucks hump up, preparing the endoskeleton for the implausible push up snowmelt, into a fresh water that will, eventually, rot them. Hens fatten, carrying roe like jewels[4]. Chum salmon are often dubbed dog salmon. If you hold a spawning fish and look her in the bland face, the epithet will be no mystery: once demure teeth now grow to snarls and will rip a palm if one isn’t careful. Their collective return to the fresh flush in which they were once yolked hatchlings to dig their own redds[5], lay and fertilize eggs is still a profound mystery. Clear bay water goes black with Chum and hazy with decay; spawned out salmon float dead on the tide. Bucks and hens amass in the hatchery brood pond – a cement hollow through which fresh lake water is funneled, simulating a river. Spawning salmon push up contrived cement steps, jumping against surging water. The feat appears desperate, hysterical, incredible.

From the brood pond, up fifty feet coastwise, a river floods from the same lake the brood pond water is pumped. This small river (you can jump the highest rocks at low tide) has long played host to spawning salmon; eons before the hatchery was erected, before humans populated Alaskan coasts, wild salmon returned each year to lay broods in river beds like these. It was from those native fish that the island hatchery first collected spawning returners for manual propagation. In the bay, wild fish are now far outnumbered by hatchery-bred fish. A few salmon make it past the more alluringly powerful, synthesized current to this river. They may be wild fish whose progenitors too spawned freely in riverbed, or they may be of the hatchery stock. No matter which runnel the fish happen upon, none will return to sea. By the hundreds of thousands they push shoreword. Spawning in the lake water in which they were themselves hatched will be their final pilgrimage.

The seasons on Esther are also marked, though by a lesser token, with the arrival of salmon seiners, gillnetters and tenders. The boats’ materialization, like that of the black bears, of the gulls and bald eagles who feed upon the spent carcasses of spawned fish, is contingent upon the salmon’s continuation. When spawning salmon run to fresh water across the world – as in Prince William Sound – many are netted by fishing vessels before reaching either the brood pond or river bed. This can be, like any fishery, a lucrative business subject to the variability of harvesting wild produce. To protect livelihood and broad economy, hatcheries manually spawn commercially viable fish. Salmon fishermen are threads in the Alaskan coastal financial ecosystem pulsing money to interior stretches. Take, for example, one 38-foot purse-seiner, crewed by five people. This boat nets fish (with an absurd amount of skill required by crew and captain; maneuvering skiff, boat and net through shallow, vessel-jammed water necessitates mechanical and physical dexterity and an insensible stamina.) and the hauls the fish to offload at a waiting tender[6]. Once full, or the opener[7] closes, the tender transports the fish to processor facilities – canneries, reefer trucks, factories. From there, fish is sent and sold throughout the world, supplying grocers, fish counters, food processors, families. Each of these steps (and all those unmentioned – can producers, truck drivers, marine gear suppliers, etc) boosts a massive economic feedback loop.

The season of spawning is called “egg-take.” From the brood pond Chum are sent by conveyor into the main hatchery building. Ripe hens are cut ventrally, roe scraped by thumb and forefinger from ovaries, collected in five gallon buckets. White milt from five bucks is sprayed by hand into the bucket, simulating somewhat the competitive diversity of stream-spawned fish. Over the long, silent winter, these fertilized eggs are coddled in incubators. In the early spring, fry[8] are released into the bay to school in nets. Their concept of the world is maximized from a four-by-four-by-one foot aluminum tank to a thirty-by-thirty-by-twenty foot net. Here they are fed a regulated diet of dried feed chucked generally by a bored technician walking in floating circles. In a few months, the snow melts on moss, spiders uncase, birds return and the smolts[9] are released: their world, very suddenly, becomes the spread of the globe’s oceans. Humpbacks arrive to feed on hatchery fish. Their spouts can be heard across the bay, and the sight of the first is announced on the island with great fanfare. A brief hiatus in bay activity follows. Hatchery workers rest, prepare. And then the next Chum brood returns just ahead of the sea lions, scavenging eagles and the engine thrum of gillnetters and seiners from Cordova and Whittier and Valdez. Egg-take, commercial fishing and summer, begin again.

There are many such hatcheries poised at the world’s littoral edges. They support all manner of fish – though the general commonality is the matter of the fish’s economic import. It’s a sticky situation, providing solutions that raise questions. Hatchery-raised fish (as opposed to those spawning wild in riverbed without the help of human hand), in the Pacific Northwest, make up a mind-boggling 70-80% of coastal fishery stocks. In Prince William Sound, the hatchery system managed by the non-profit I once worked for supported each year $49 million dollars – 90 million pounds – of commercially harvested salmon.

Beyond financial impacts, of course, hatchery fish fill potential gaps caused by overfishing. Overfishing can happen inadvertently and outside prescribed openers; on Bering Sea commercial pollock boats fishing a hundred miles offshore, salmon-takes are of large concern. Salmon cannot legally be kept for sale by offshore vessels, and the catch-limits for Chinook and Coho salmon[10] are restrictively low (and regulated in a system similar to that of halibut limits, discussed here). Industrial inland practices can impact native salmon runs too, raising cause for hatchery support. On the east coast, numbers of wild Atlantic salmon are dumbfoundingly low. The logging, damming and industrial waste that revert long-stable spawning rivers to inhabitable washes, compounded by early unregulated fishing offshore razed Atlantic salmon populations. Atlantic hatcheries now work to boost runs. As coastal money moves in veins by trade and transport inland, salmon move nutrients in heaps, from benthos to estuary. And from river banks fertilized by spawned-out fish unfold ecosystems. There is merit to hatchery-fish beyond the financial.

There are, regrettably, repercussions to muddling long-held ecological patterns – even for reparations’ sake. Pruning of genetics and unsupportable behavioral traits begins in the Chum-spawned river bed. Most individuals making it into the hatchery brood pond have a fair chance to be manually spawned at the hands of a hatchery tech. Not so in the wild; if the journey upriver to spawning grounds is long (I worked once at a Sockeye hatchery 200 miles inland, to which fish arrived alive, but rotting) a very select few will make the push. Wild alvein[11] are subjected to major run-off events, predation, disease. Inside the hatchery, alvein in incubators have daily their O2 levels tested, temperature maintained, are protected within four aluminum walls. The imbalance in necessary hardiness between hatchery and wild salmon continues until smolt release. There is a relative lack of predator awareness, hunting capabilities and overall lower socio-behavioral fitness in hatchery-raised fish. Hatchery-raised and wild-spawned fish do eventually mix at sea, and, during fishing openers, are caught in the same gillnets and purse seins. Concern amongst fisheries researchers now grows: in today’s overtaxed oceans, many salmon stocks are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Because hatcheries allow for greater fishing efforts on returning salmon, and because the proportion of hatchery-raised salmon now far outweighs that of the wild-spawned, fishing’s impact on wild-spawned salmon numbers is disproportionately larger than on hatchery-raised. A growing proportion of the less-fit hatchery-raised fish will necessitate more hatchery-fish raised (as the entirety of the salmon population grows, over generations, less-fit). It is a brutal cycle, that at the time of the first hatchery’s development, was unpredictable.

Is there a balance to be found between boosting the volume of native salmon returns and protecting their genetic history? The conundrum lies, as it so often seems to, between hedging industry and the lives supported therein, and sustaining ecological balance. The line between the two, however, grows thinner as one looks further ahead.

Obtusely, yes, hatchery-raised fish boost native populations. It is in the fine-print that the worry niggles: will the less-competitive nature of hatchery fish in turn lessen the subsequent generations of wild fish? A collective appraisal on recent anadromous fish studies can be found here, if you have the interest. Ecosystem evolution is the infinite game. Our practical solutions heretofore have been bandaid-slaps: a child’s answer to the growing sore. Which is not to say that the search for sustainable practices is obsolete. As the bay’s many lives adapt in flux, we too, must evolve regulatory standards when confronted by change and changing perception. Let us reject the notion that holds the sustaining of livelihood and protection of long-term ecological health to be mutually exclusive aims.

[1] Chum salmon: A relatively abundant commercially harvested salmon. Typically used for low-value products (e.g. dog kibble,supplements). The flesh composition is less refined for serving as fillets than other salmon.

[2] Raceways: long, deep tanks in which juvenile fish mature.

[3] Salmon runs: the mass return of a certain year of fish from several years at sea to fresh water in which they will spawn.

[4] Buck: spawning male salmon; Hen: spawning female salmon.

[5] Redds: a hollow dug by female salmon at the bottom of a river bed in which she lays eggs. Bucks fertilize with milt.

[6] Tender: A commercial vessel with large storage capabilities that collects fish from multiple fishing vessels and transports to land en masse.

[7]  Opener: a state or federally-determined allotment of time and area in which fishing can occur. For salmon seiners and gillnetters, this may be a 12-36 hour window, in which boats fish with graceful hysteria, laying and pursing nets within inches of each other.

[8] Fry: Newly hatched, impossibly delicate juvenile fish.

[9] Smolt: Young anadromous fish, recently silvered moving from nears-shore, brackish water to sea for the first time.

[10] Chinook and Coho Salmon: depending on your preferences, these can be considered some of the tastiest salmon fillets to be had. Commercially, they have a much greater worth, and are much rarer than Chum salmon. (Personally, I prefer Sockeye.)

[11] Alvein: the youngest stage of fish, directly after hatching, and before fry-stage. Alvein continue to mature in substrate, be it plastic incubator gravel or river bed.

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