NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2005 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Declining Value of Alaska Wild Salmon Fisheries: An Economic Solution


Robert Anderson
Colleen Fisk
Lucas Kovtynovich
Joanne Pelletier
Dayton Will


Team Apex Predators
Multi-school collaboration by students from:
Valley Pathways High/SeeUonline
PO Box 4897
Palmer, AK 99645

Palmer High
1170 W. Arctic Ave.
Palmer, AK 99645

Colony High
HC01 Box 6048
9550 Colony School Dr.
Palmer, AK 99645

seeUonline Apex Predators team photo

Table of Contents

  1. Abstract
  2. The Matanuska Susitna Borough
  3. Global Warming Trends
  4. Salmon Life Cycles & Optimal Growing Conditions
  5. How Global Warming Affects Salmon
  6. Alaska Salmon Industry Socioeconomic Trends
  7. The Economic Solution to Reduced Wild Salmon Populations in Alaska
  8. Figures
  9. References


The Cook Inlet fishery is one of the most productive in Alaska. It brings in five species of salmon, in addition to many other species of bottom–feeding fish. The fishing industry is one of the most important industries in Alaska.

Research on global temperature indicates that the earth is warming up, although scientists can't agree on why. Historical data shows warming in the Arctic and Antarctic regions are increasing at a faster rate than other parts of the world. Over the past 30 years, Alaska has seen an increase of temperature of two–three degrees Celsius.

Changes in global temperatures affect the environment in many ways. Environmental changes on one area create a domino effect on other parts of related ecosystems. Salmon, while considered fairly tolerant of a wide range of water temperatures, are affected in all stages of reproduction and growth by global warming.

Cultivating salmon will mitigate much of the economic uncertainty of the commercial salmon fishing industry in Alaska. Some biologists for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game believe commercial hatcheries in Alaska will be a reality within 10 years. Environmental effects can be minimized by careful regulation and study. By marketing cultivated salmon, stress on wild stocks will decrease, allowing a larger sport fishing industry and an increased share of harvest for subsistence. Alaska's economic base in the salmon industry will stabilize, and Alaska's market share of the international commercial salmon industry, increasingly monopolized by Chile and Canada, can be recouped.

The Matanuska Susitna Borough

The Matanuska–Susitna Borough (MSB) is a part of the Cook Inlet Watershed in Southcentral Alaska. The MSB is actually one of the main sources of the water running into the Cook Inlet Watershed. The entire watershed drains about 39,000 square miles.

The watershed includes some of Alaska's most diverse ecosystems, including alpine tundra, coastal rainforests, and wetlands, especially around river deltas. The Cook Inlet Watershed also contains many public lands, such as national parks and state parks.

Cook Inlet contains about 8,000 square miles of saltwater, which drains into the Pacific Ocean. It contains about 350 islands and islets, which all have their own unique ecosystems, and many of them also contribute to the watershed, with small streams running off of them. The tides in Cook Inlet sometimes change as much as 39 feet, a huge change in water level. (

The Cook Inlet fishery is one of the most productive in Alaska. It brings in 5 species of salmon, in addition to herring, scallops, halibut, and many other species of bottom–feeding fish. The fishing industry is one of the most important industries in Alaska, and fish products are Alaska's biggest international export

The value of Alaska's commercial fishing catch is the highest in the nation. Sport fishing is also important to the economy—sports fishermen spend more than 500 million annually on tackle ( In the MSB, about 250 people hold commercial fishing licenses. Many others work seasonally as crewmembers on board commercial fishing boats, or in fish processing plants and canneries. (

Global Warming Trends

Research on global temperature trends indicates that the Earth is warming up, although scientists still do not agree why. Warming in the 20th century is greater than at any time during the past 400–600 years. (Figure 1) Historical data shows the Arctic and Antarctic regions are increasing at a faster rate than other parts of the world. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the mean surface temperature of the earth has increased by about 1.1°F (0.6°Celsius). Worldwide, average temperatures have increased by about 0.5°F (0.2–0.3°Celsius) in these past 40 years. Over the last 30 years, Alaska has seen an increase of temperature of 2–3°C, with the biggest changes occurring during the winter season. (

The temperature of the Earth is determined by the balance between the amount of energy received from the sun and the amount of energy radiated from the surface. The amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth has been constant from century to century. The land, air, and the oceans absorb 70 percent of the solar radiation, and about 30 percent is reflected back into space by clouds, atmospheric aerosols, reflective ground surfaces and even ocean surf. The components of a climate system are complex, and include interactions between the atmosphere, land, oceans, ice and the biosphere.

Over the past 250 years humans have raised the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have increased 31 percent, nitrous oxide concentrations by 15 percent, and methane levels have increased by 151 percent, making these greenhouse gases at their highest levels in the past 420,000 years (Panel on Climate Change, IPOCC, 2001). Greenhouse gases increase the amount of solar radiation trapped in the Earth's atmosphere, which increases the global surface temperatures.

Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to accelerate the rate of climate change. Scientists expect that the average global surface temperature could rise 1–4.5°F (0.6–2.5°C) in the next fifty years, and 2.2–10°F (1.4–5.8°C) in the next century, with significant regional variation. Evaporation will increase as the climate warms, which will increase average global precipitation. Soil moisture is likely to decline in many regions, and intense rainstorms are likely to become more frequent.

Drastic habitat shifts for plants and animals has been observed. Scientists have documented shifting populations and altered migration behavior as animals attempt to adapt to a changing climate. The species that cannot adapt have a population decline. As adaptable species move into new ranges, the effects on competing species cause a domino effect on entire ecosystems.

Both positive and negative (i.e. dampening) feedbacks are possible in the global climate system. Rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), cause the initial climatic disturbance in the form of global warming. Both the increase in greenhouse gases and associated warming can affect the structure and function of ecosystems, which in turn may accelerate or diminish the warming. The end result is global warming and climatic change of a different magnitude compared to the initial disturbance (

The causes of global warming are complex and not completely understood by scientists. There is argument on the issue of the human factor involved in the current warming trend we are experiencing ( Regardless of the cause of global warming, the evidence is clear that it is occurring.

Salmon Life Cycles & Optimal Growing Conditions

Salmon spawn in clean, cool streams with low amounts of fine sediments. After the eggs have hatched, the young salmon mature in the rivers and streams they were born in. After a time, they make their way back to the ocean, spending several weeks, and even months, in estuaries. The lush habitat of the estuary enables the young salmon to grow fast, and then they finish their journey to the sea. During the spawning season, the salmon's susceptibility to disease increases. The chance of disease in salmon increases as the water temperature rises (

In the fall, salmon lay their eggs in gravel nests called redds. The eggs incubate through the winter months, often under several feet of snow and ice. Around late November to early December eyes began to show, starting the eyed egg life stage. During this time, it is essential that water temperature is suitable. In late winter, the eggs hatch into alevins. When the alevin loose their yolk sacs, in May and June, they leave their protected nests as fry. They are about an inch long, and in the open water; they make easy prey for larger fish. They may spend year or more in the river or a nearby lake, depending on the species (sockeye fry travel to a lake for a year, and pink and chum fry swim directly to the sea). In the spring, in the smolt life stage, the young salmon head downstream towards the sea. They spend varying amounts of time in the sea, ranging up to five years. Early in the summer of their maturing year, they began the return journey to their home streams. (

The optimal survival temperature for spawning salmon, salmon embryos, and alevin, is 4.4 to 13.9 degrees Celsius. Growth of the salmon at these life stages ceases when the water temperature is greater than 23 degrees Celsius, and the water becomes lethal at 25.1 degrees Celsius. In the fry life stage, the water needs to be between five degrees Celsius and 17 degrees Celsius for optimal living conditions. In this stage, growth ceases when the water temperature is greater than 20.3 degrees Celsius, and swimming activity decreases when the water temperature is greater than 20.9 degrees Celsius, making predation more likely. The water temperature becomes lethal between 22.9 degrees Celsius to 25 degrees Celsius. During the winter, the optimal water temperature is 10 degrees Celsius, to prevent an accelerated smolting process, however, in the spring, during the smolting and seaward migration; the optimal water temperature is 12 degrees Celsius. During the adult life stage, when the salmon is living out at sea, the optimal water temperature is less than 13 degrees Celsius. The risk of disease in adult salmon increases when the water temperature is greater that 12.7 degrees Celsius. The water becomes lethal to the adult salmon when the temperature is greater than 25.5 degrees Celsius (

Nearly two million salmon sharks inhabit the waters in Prince William Sound and are principle eaters of migrating salmon. Alaska is experiencing a climate change and predators of salmon and other fish have been migrating to coastal waters. The range of salmon sharks is moving northwards as surface ocean temperatures increase ( Such a vast population of predators decreases the population of salmon and other fish. Salmon sharks are not the only problem inhabiting Alaska's waters—other sharks have also made Alaska's waters home and prey upon schools of salmon. Another major predator of salmon that has been increasing dramatically as water temperatures rise is mackerel. While mackerel are a commercially valuable fish, they are both competing with resources with as well as preying upon salmon in larger and larger numbers as increasing ocean water temperatures move their range northward ( Fishermen, while casting for salmon, constantly catch these predators. The decrease in salmon numbers may be caused, in part, by this influx of predators (

How Global Warming Affects Salmon

Salmon, as a species, are very tolerant to change. Their life cycle and migrating patterns make tolerance of a wide range of water types, temperature, and food sources a survival mechanism. However, there are limits to the survival rates and adaptability of salmon. Increasing temperatures due to global warming, especially in more northern climates, have multiple effects on the ecosystems necessary to survival of salmon ( There are risk factors in every stage of the salmon life cycle, all of which are currently affected, or will potentially be affected, by environmental change and stresses imposed by global warming (Figure 2). Our team has come up with these risk factors for how global warming affects salmon in their various life stages:

Egg stage factors:

  • Increased precipitation causes increased runoff and silting up of spawning beds
  • Lack of suitable spawning habitat causes higher egg mortality
  • Increased water temperatures decreases DO (dissolved oxygen) available in water, increasing egg mortality
  • Increased water temperature causes earlier development and hatching, with greater risk of predation

Alevin stage factors:

  • Increased temperature causes earlier development with greater risk for predation
  • Increase of precipitation and flooding washes out alevin and increases mortality

Fry stage factors:

  • Increased river water temperatures will decrease optimum conditions necessary for survival
  • Altering the timing and volume of stream flow discharges will result in the reduced capability of streams to support fry
  • Altering the aquatic community will have adverse impacts due to changes in predation patterns and changes in food availability

Smolt stage factors:

  • Altering timing and volume of stream discharge result in increased mortality of out-migrating smolt
  • Increased water temperatures increase growth rate, smolt may begin to migrate before they are mature, increasing chance of mortality and decreasing chance of reproductive viability

Adult/Ocean stage factors:

  • Changes in surface ocean temperatures change ranges of predatory fish (such as salmon shark and mackerel) increasing predation
  • Changes in ocean circulation patterns change nutrient availability, populations of food sources, increasing risk of mortality and altering natural feeding pattern of salmon
  • Increase in water temperatures increases risk of disease
  • Increase of water temperature increases maturation, which can result in immature/undersize salmon beginning migration too early

Mature/Breeding stage factors

  • Salmon returning to breed before mature, failure to spawn
  • Altering timing and volume of stream discharge result in adult salmon unable to navigate streams
  • Increased water temperature increases stress, increases disease, and cause salmon to burn energy faster, increasing mortality
  • Increased runoff causes changes in suitable spawning habitat, failure to spawn or spawning in unprotected areas

Alaska Salmon Industry Socioeconomic Trends

The Alaska salmon harvest can be roughly divided into three major groups: the commercial salmon fishery, the subsistence fishery, and the tourism/sport fishery. There have historically been conflicts between these three groups about the allocation of limited salmon resources through out the state.

The commercial salmon industry numbers almost seven thousand fishermen, about five thousand residents and two thousand non-residents. Around 120 million salmon are caught each year, valued just over 200 million dollars. In recent years, earnings per fisherman have drastically decreased- resident fishermen make roughly 20,000 dollars, while non-resident fishermen are earning even more, about 25,000 dollars. This difference in earnings can be attributed to gear types. A big factor into the recent declines in salmon value is that many fishermen are leaving the industry somewhat rapidly. The gross earnings of Alaska salmon fisheries are approximately 150 million dollars, which is the lowest in more than ten years (

Another major use of salmon is for subsistence fishing. Subsistence is "living off the land." Over 17% of Alaska's population is Native, and many rely on subsistence for their livelihood- especially those in rural Alaska. Salmon is a chief part of a subsistence diet and as salmon numbers decline, subsistence fishermen may be forced to find a substitute.

The net economic value of sports fishing in Alaska is more difficult to quantify. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts national surveys every 5 years asking households that participate in fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing how much they spend on these pursuits. The overall economic value of sport fishing for US residents in Alaska for 2001 was an estimated $537 million. This is money that was spent in Alaska and does not include equipment or supplies bought by nonresident anglers before they came to the state. Residents of other countries, whom have a significant impact on the Alaska economy, are not included in these figures. (

Of Alaska's foreign exports, seafood is by far the largest- accounting for more than 1.3 billion dollars in 2002. In the same year Japan provided a market for almost 53% of Alaska's seafood exports, this was down from 69% in 2000. In 2002, Japan alone contributed 707.8 million dollars to Alaska's seafood sales. This was also down from sales in 1995, when sales had held steadily above 1 billion for the past 5 years. This is mostly due to Alaska's exports being displaced and the globalization of the salmon industry.

The worldwide market for farmed salmon is nearly 3.5 billion dollars in value. This is well over the value of wild salmon value. In the past ten years, farmed salmon has become increasingly present in the market. In 1994, farmed salmon equated to about 400 thousand tons (metric), while wild salmon accounted for slightly less than that. In 2001, farmed salmon had reached almost 1.2 million metric tons, while wild salmon totaled only 350 thousand (Figure 3). This has also devalued salmon harvests, because there is more supply and less quality in the market. Because farmed salmon has the advantage of predictability, it allows for scheduled harvests and can anticipate demand. This is what effectively determines the global market price for salmon.

Canada and Chile have a stranglehold on the market for farmed salmon, because, unlike Alaska, Canada has created policies promoting salmon farms. Alaska salmon are wild; there are no salmon farms in Alaska. In order to protect Alaska's wild fisheries from potential problems, salmon farming was prohibited by the Alaska legislature in 1990 (Alaska Statute 16.40.210). In current years, Alaska plays a very small part in the world market for salmon exports, because of the farmed salmon control on the market- especially by Canada and Chile—and Alaska represents far less than 1% of the total world market for salmon (

The Economic Solution to Reduced Wild Salmon Populations in Alaska

Although research clearly supports that the global climate is warming, especially in the Arctic regions, the theory that man has caused or can control global warming is more controversial. Cooperation between nations is difficult to implement, although attempt are currently being addressed by policies such as the Kyoto Treaty (which has not been ratified by the US). Many scientists contend there is more politics than science in these types of solutions.

One possibility to improve the economic viability of commercial salmon fisheries would be to attempt to increase the survival rate of oceanic salmon by reducing salmon predator populations. Increasing the fishing community by focusing new fisheries on predators like salmon shark and mackerel could allow higher survival rates for salmon in the adult ocean stage of life. Establishing a commercially viable fishery for these fish in Alaska waters is problematic.

We feel that the greatest impact on improving the economic forecast for salmon is to encourage salmon farming in Alaska. Currently, one in three salmon caught in Alaska waters already start their life in a hatchery, and over 50% of the salmon caught in the lower 48 states are hatchery raised ( Crops of oysters, mussels, giant rock scallops and clams are being grown in shellfish farms in Alaska. It's an industry that is showing steady growth and untapped potential. Although salmon farming has always been illegal in Alaska, growing millions of salmon in ocean pens is a major industry in places like Norway, Chile, and British Columbia. British Columbia employs 2,100 people and generates $165 million dollars in sales each year from salmon farming ( The Alaska Legislature is being shortsighted in outlawing aquaculture of salmon, and creating an economic imbalance in Alaska fisheries that other countries, especially Chile and Canada, are rushing quickly to exploit.

According to Darrell Keifer, the hatchery manager for the ADFG's Elmendorf Hatchery in Anchorage, salmon cultivation is almost certain to become a reality in Alaska within the next 10 years (pers. com.). Currently ADF&G runs a hatchery program for sports fish, which is 100% funded by user fees (25% license fees and 75% Dingell-Johnson sport fishing excise tax). They primarily hatch coho and Chinook salmon, with total returns attributed to Alaska hatcheries and enhancement projects for 2001 estimated at 62 million fish ( Keifer believes that the only reason commercial hatcheries are not legal in Alaska is political pressure from the commercial fishing industry. He stated that properly managed hatcheries are economically feasible and with careful management, the ecological effects can be minimized. He stated that Alaska is a leader in salmon aquaculture, and other commercial salmon producers (Washington, British Columbia, and Oregon, to name a few), look to Alaska for protocols in hatchery management practices.

When salmon cultivating first began, pollution, diseases, and food resources were the largest problems facing it. While these concerns are valid, they are at a much lower risk due to improved cultivation techniques. Salmon cultivating research has produced antibiotics for diseases found in cultivated fish and now they are even beginning to have vaccines for these diseases to prevent them completely. China is currently working on a yeast-based protein supplement that could be substituted for half of the fish meal used in aquaculture ( Fish meal is one of the leading factors in aquaculture pollution. Fish culturist Bob McFadden, from the ADFG Elmendorf Hatchery in Anchorage, thinks the biggest concern that Alaska should have regarding cultivating fish is maintaining genetic diversity and not introducing alien species into the wild (pers. com). He feels that with proper management policies, these impacts would be minimal.

Negative Impacts of Fish Farming

  • Polluting coastal waters with fish waste, antibiotics and pesticides.
  • Allowing, either accidentally or by deliberate release, escape of farmed fish into Alaskan waters. Escaped farmed salmon compete with wild fish for food and habitat and can introduce parasites and infectious disease into Alaska 's wild fish populations.
  • Potentially releasing new, exotic fish species, such as genetically altered fish, into Alaska 's marine environment. These species could genetically alter and weaken wild stocks through interbreeding.
  • Increasing direct or by catch fishing pressure both in Alaska and elsewhere to supply fish farms with fish meal and fish oil as a feed source.

Mitigating Negative Impacts of Fish Farming

  • Careful control and regulation of discharges and pollution associated with aquaculture. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game annually raises over 1.5 billion salmon in hatcheries with little damage to the environment.
  • Regulation & management of fish farming sites for environmental impact.
  • Careful control and regulation regarding release of farmed fish into the wild.
  • Sterilization techniques for hatchery salmon.
  • Using wild salmon as the genetic pool for hatchery salmon. F1 & F2 genetic protocols. Control of genetically altered fish for research purposes only.
  • Alternate sources of feed such as soy based meal.

There are negative impacts to commercial fishing as well, although they are not generally discussed in fish farming arguments. These risks include the cost to fresh water habitat by removing salmon carcasses from the ecosystem, hooking mortality and net dropout (estimated to between 10%-20% of total harvest), "ghost nets," pollution from processing plants (which is considerably higher than organic pollution from salmon farms), and adverse marine mammal interactions ( Overall, these risks are not great, however, they are actually as serious a risk, or even more of a risk than the affects of fish farming, which can be controlled much more readily.

Currently, the commercial salmon industry has a limited entry permit process for commercial fishing licenses. Aquaculture has the potential to be a high dollar industry, and could stabilize the Alaska salmon market. Fresh salmon, which have a higher market value compared to canned or frozen salmon (Figure 4), would be available year around, rather than only within the commercial fishing season. Commercial fishermen could be encouraged to trade in their fishing licenses for an aquaculture permit. The relinquished fishing permits would not be made available, thus decreasing the fishing pressure on wild salmon stocks. The cost of maintaining an aquaculture facility is lower than maintaining a fishing fleet. Only a limited number commercial salmon farming permits would be available, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) could jointly regulate fish farming (farming is, after all, an agricultural activity). A tax could be regulated on fishing supplies, like licenses and sports fishing equipment, in order to gain additional funding for research. The reduced fishing pressure on commercially caught salmon will increase the survival rate of wild fish stocks, and enhance the subsistence and sport fisheries catch, returning Alaska to pre-eminence as a sport fishing paradise.

Many countries have already begun heavily investing in aquaculture. Environmental problems result if research and monitoring processes are not mandated and followed. User groups should finance 100% of the health and safety monitoring of fish culturing. Alaska is already a leader in research and knowledge for salmon. Using the protocols already in place for sport hatchery fish, and expanding them to cover commercial fish farming would not be a big leap.

The main point we are making is this: Whether we want to admit it or not the wild salmon populations are decreasing and soon they will be wiped out unless we do something about it. If you ask fisherman how their catches have been going the last few years they will say that they have decreased. Sadly there is little we can do to help the wild salmon populations directly. Reducing fishing seasons and catch limits, and closing off major spawning areas all help, but they aren't enough. By supporting aquaculture and not holding it back we can save the wild salmon populations faster and more productively than we have ever imagined possible. Additional benefits of the aquaculture of salmon would be to increase Alaska's share of the global salmon market, ensuring a steady year-around income from salmon exports, and stabilizing market prices by making top quality Alaska fish available fresh year around.


Figure 1: NOAA Chart

Figure 1

Click to view larger image.

Figure 2: Effect of Warm Water Temperatures on Sockeye Salmon

Figure 2

Figure 3: Farmed Salmon VRS Alaska Wild Salmon Harvest Graph

Figure 3

Figure 4: Fish Price Comparison

Figure 4



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Personal Communication

Keifer, Darrell, manager, Elmendorf Hatchery, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, 941 N. Reeve Blvd, Anchorage, AK 99501 (907) 274-0065 (personal communication 2/7/05)

McFadden, Bob; Fish Culturist, Elmendorf Hatchery Alaska Department of Fish & Game, 941 N. Reeve Blvd, Anchorage, AK 99501 (907) 274-0065

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