Alaska Salmon Program

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Bristol Bay, Alaska: the largest sockeye-salmon-producing area in the world.

The sockeye fishery there was established over a century ago, in 1883. But by the early 1940s, that precious resource was in jeopardy of being overfished.

It was in the spring of 1945 that representatives of the Alaska salmon canners came to the UW School of Fisheries seeking emergency assistance. UW professor W. F. Thompson set up a field research program to study the problem; the program has been consistently running ever since. In fact, it has been expanded to include the Kodiak Island and Southeast Alaska pink salmon fisheries.

Pictured below left: Spawning salmon.
Inset below: Sockeye in Lake Iliamna

Spawning salmon and sockeye

"The Alaska salmon fishery," says Marsha Landolt, Director of the UW School of Fisheries, "is, in large measure, a distant water fishery whose fishermen, vessels, and processors are based in Washington State." The annual value of the fishery today, she explains, is from $300 to $500 million.footnote 1

During the 50-year history of the Alaska Salmon Program, faculty, staff, and students of the UW have studied the population structure, behavior, and ecological requirements of Pacific salmon. Researchers have used a combination of fisheries techniques, including pre-season forecasting, in-season forecasting, and setting escapement goals for individual river systems. Escapement goals refer to the fraction of the fish population that is allowed to bypass the fishery and spawn in the natural environment. As a result of the program, the Alaska fishery not only has been saved from overexploitation, but today the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon runs are at their highest levels in recorded history, says Landolt.

UW fisheries professor Donald E. Rogers has been working with the program for decades. Thirty-five years ago, he began studying the Wood River lake system in Bristol Bay. His research continues to this day with studies on the growth and abundance of fry, physical and biological conditions in the lakes, and the abundance and distribution of sockeye salmon spawners. With funding from nine fish processing companies based in Seattle, two fisherman organizations, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, his graduate students are examining predator-prey relations, stock identification, food habits, and food production.

Rogers explains there are three main ways that sponsoring the research program pays off for a processor. First of all, accurate forecasts depend on having an accurate understanding of the factors that regulate the annual numbers of adult salmon. Especially important is information on the spawners and juvenile fish in the lakes. "It is no coincidence that my pre-season forecast accuracy is best for the Nushagak runs, where we have the most extensive database...and poorest for Ugashik where we have very little data on spawners and juveniles," he notes.

Secondly, how escapement goals are established has a direct effect on the number of salmon a company can process, and thus on their earnings. "If escapement goals are set too high there is a direct loss of catch and a potential long-term loss, and if goals are set too low there may be a short-term gain but a long-term loss in production," explains Rogers.

Thirdly, a close working relationship between the researchers and managers of the runs is a benefit to processors. "If a manager feels confident in a forecasted large run, there is likely to be early fishing," says Rogers, but if there is no confidence, then "the fishery is likely to be closed until the escapement goal is assured," which is undesirable for processors.

The Alaska Salmon Program operates several field stations in Alaska: four major stations—at Lake Aleknagik and at Lake Nerka, in the town of Iliamna, and at Porcupine Island—and two outposts, at Chignik Lake and at Lake Kulik.

  1. Marsha Landolt, personal communication.
  2. Information provided by Donald Rogers is greatly appreciated.

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