The Last kings of The wild

Why are Alaska’s chi­nook salmon runs crash­ing? It’s a big mys­tery that a salty group of re­searchers aims to crack

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - by chuck thomp­son

Chi­nook num­bers might be down, but one rag­tag team of re­searchers won’t let them dis­ap­pear.

You’ve never heard of Tseta Creek. But if some­one asked you to de­sign the per­fect king salmon spawn­ing habi­tat, it’d look pre­cisely like this. Shal­low wa­ter. Quick cur­rent. Smooth creekbed of large, col­or­ful gravel and small cob­ble. Lots of root wads and cedar and spruce blow­downs along the banks, cre­at­ing dark hid­ing spots and nest­ing pock­ets.

Tseta Creek lies 150 river miles from the Pa­cific Ocean in north­ern Bri­tish Columbia, sev­eral days’ pad­dle from the near­est road. Part of the Taku River wa­ter­shed—the famed fish­ery that spills into Alaskan wa­ters south of Juneau—it’s hid­den amid tow­er­ing peaks and twist­ing val­leys. No mat­ter what your be­liefs on mat­ters of the divine, when you fi­nally ar­rive here, you look around at the un­touched, glacial-carved wilder­ness and can’t help think­ing, As God in­tended.

Tseta Creek is per­fect wild spawn­ing habi­tat in ev­ery way but one: There are al­most no salmon here.

“A few years ago, this whole stretch of river was plugged—chi­nook [king] salmon were so thick, they were run­ning through your legs,” says Nathan Frost, an Alaska Depart­ment of Fish and Game fish­ery bi­ol­o­gist. A sim­i­lar bend on the nearby Nahlin River was an even hot­ter spot. Thou­sands of spawn­ers rushed up­river like daily freight trains. To­day, Frost calls the area “a bi­o­log­i­cal dead zone.”

Frost has spent the past five years track­ing the de­cline of chi­nook pop­u­la­tions in south­east Alaska. In Au­gust, I ac­com­pa­nied him and a team of re­searchers from Alaska and Fish­eries and Oceans Canada on a chi­nook sam­pling trip on Tseta Creek and the Nahlin and Du­di­dontu rivers.

Al­though we found spawn­ers to mea­sure and take scale sam­ples from—about 40 fish that day on Tseta Creek—frost’s fa­vorite sec­tions were close to bar­ren. Few fish also meant no bears, wolves, ravens, ea­gles, or other wildlife.

“Ev­ery preda­tor and scav­enger should be on this river right now. But there are no fish, so they’re not here,” says Ed Jones, co­or­di­na­tor of Fish and Game’s Chi­nook Salmon Re­search Ini­tia­tive, and top dog on the ex­pe­di­tion. A gar­ru­lous shot-put­ter type who grew up hunt­ing in New Mex­ico, Jones looks more like a com­mer­cial fish­er­man than a state bu­reau­crat.

“We used to come out here, and the first thing we’d do is put up a bear fence around camp,” he says. “It was like Kat­mai. You’d look up the river and see half a dozen brown bears.”

Our re­search party car­ries .44s and bear spray. But over the week, we saw just one bear—from a he­li­copter on a dis­tant ridge­line.

“The bears are up high, prob­a­bly hunt­ing moose calves in­stead of be­ing on the river,” says Jones.

POP­U­LA­TION IN PERIL

The world’s wild king salmon stocks are dis­ap­pear­ing. In 2015, ab­nor­mally high river wa­ter tem­per­a­tures in Ore­gon trig­gered a die-off of threat­ened chi­nooks. In 2017, the Pa­cific Fish­ery and Man­age­ment Coun­cil closed 200 miles of the West Coast to ocean salmon fish­ing to pro­tect a record-low run of Kla­math River chi­nook.

In Alaska—the world’s last ma­jor, wild com­mer­cial salmon fish­ery—the sit­u­a­tion is even more dire. Less than 1 per­cent of wild chi­nooks—maybe less than 0.5 per­cent—are re­turn­ing to na­tive streams like Tseta Creek to spawn. Though highly vari­able, a wild sur­vival rate of 3 per­cent is more in line with a sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion.

Over the past half decade, hatch­eries on the Pa­cific North­west’s Columbia River—which pri­mar­ily pro­duce chi­nooks, co­hos, and steel­head—pro­duced be­tween 50 and 60 per­cent of south­east Alaska’s com­mer­cial catch. In 2013, na­tive south­east Alaska stock made up just 1.2 per­cent of the year’s haul there. When you pony up for “wild Alaska salmon” in a gro­cery store or res­tau­rant, there’s a de­cent chance that fish ac­tu­ally be­gan its life in a hatch­ery.

It’s not just that there are fewer fish. The fish that are re­turn­ing are younger and smaller. Ma­ture kings tra­di­tion­ally grow large and spawn af­ter four or five sum­mers in the ocean. Th­ese days, most are re­turn­ing to na­tal streams af­ter two or three ocean sum­mers. Smaller fe­males dig shal­lower redds in which to de­posit their eggs. More sus­cep­ti­ble to pre­da­tion and freez­ing, shal­lower redds pro­duce fewer salmon alevins, con­tribut­ing to the alarm­ing spi­ral.

Walk into Sitka’s Rocky Gu­tier­rez Air­port and you’ll find a pair of mounted chi­nook the size of cof­fee ta­bles. Th­ese are the win­ners of the 1988 and 1989 Sitka Salmon Derby: 71 pounds 6 ounces and 67 pounds 8 ounces, re­spec­tively. The derby’s 2017 win­ner came in at 40.5 pounds. The down­siz­ing trend is even more de­press­ing in Juneau, where in 2017 state of­fi­cials shut down all chi­nook fish­ing just days be­fore the Golden North Salmon Derby, an an­nual event that has been the cen­ter­piece of the Alaska cap­i­tal’s sport­fish­ing cal­en­dar since the 1950s.

Al­though the smaller-fish phe­nom­e­non cuts across most species in Alaska—“the big Ke­nai and Yukon River fish are largely gone,” con­firms one state bi­ol­o­gist—not all of Alaska’s wild salmon are im­per­iled. Coho and sock­eye runs are strong through­out the state.

Yet as the largest, strong­est, fastest, oili­est, tasti­est, and far­thest-mi­grat­ing of all salmon, chi­nooks are con­sid­ered to be in a class of their own by ev­ery­one from na­tive to com­mer­cial to sub­sis­tence to sport fish­er­men to five-star Brook­lyn and Bei­jing chefs. Not to men­tion sea lions, killer whales, and sharks, which con­sti­tute the largest user group. Dur­ing sum­mer months, some killer whales have been shown to feed al­most ex­clu­sively on chi­nooks.

PER­FECT SALMON STORM

So, what ac­counts for the demise of the chi­nooks? Sur­pris­ingly, no one knows. Alaska and Bri­tish Columbia’s river ecosys­tems are in nearper­fect shape. So sci­en­tists say it’s a marine sur­vival

is­sue. Mean­ing it’s a mys­te­ri­ous one.

“The ocean is vir­tu­ally a black box for chi­nooks,” says Andrew Seitz, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of fish­eries ecol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks. “Out­side the ar­eas where fleets fish, there’s very lit­tle data on chi­nook be­hav­ior.”

Com­pet­ing the­o­ries for the pop­u­la­tion de­cline all sound rea­son­able: over­pro­duc­tion of hatch­ery salmon pro­duces over-com­pe­ti­tion for ocean re­sources; a mea­sure­able in­crease in apex preda­tors in Alaskan wa­ters, in­clud­ing or­cas, whales, and salmon sharks; by­catch from the pol­lock fish­ery and for­eign-flagged drift gill­net­ters (Seitz says stud­ies un­equiv­o­cally de­bunk this stub­bornly held “con­spir­acy the­ory”); warm­ing ocean tem­per­a­tures, in­clud­ing the Pa­cific “blob”—first no­ticed in 2013, that cov­ered most of the Gulf of Alaska and large parts of the Ber­ing Sea—might be al­ter­ing the food web at plank­ton and for­age lev­els cru­cial to young salmon.

An evolv­ing idea sug­gests a com­bi­na­tion of th­ese and un­known fac­tors could be ac­count­ing for a per­fect salmon storm.

“One im­pact or two might not dra­mat­i­cally af­fect a fish pop­u­la­tion,” says Seitz. “But if you get a num­ber of th­ese fac­tors, the cu­mu­la­tive im­pact may start af­fect­ing the abun­dance of fish re­turn­ing to rivers.”

Seitz uses pop-up satel­lite tags to track adult chi­nooks in the ocean. Salmon sharks have dec­i­mated some of his study groups. But his sam­ple sizes aren’t large enough to pro­vide de­fin­i­tive an­swers. The fate of the chi­nook may re­main in that black box.

SALMON SUR­VIVORS

Or maybe it rests with that gang of re­searchers I spent a week with up the Taku River wa­ter­shed. In ad­di­tion to the thigh-burn­ing work of wad­ing up and down rivers, ford­ing rapids, and oc­ca­sion­ally flood­ing waders af­ter slip­ping on a sub­merged boul­der (me, twice), their com­mit­ment and su­per­nat­u­ral out­door savvy was an in­spi­ra­tion. Walk­ing along­side a river he’d never been on, Cana­dian re­searcher Shawn Mc­far­land ca­su­ally pre­dicted one af­ter­noon that we’d soon see a tree used as a bear scratch. Sure as shoot­ing, 50 yards down the game trail we came upon a spruce trunk scarred with tell­tale claw marks. How did he know?

“Bears claim a tree or space by tak­ing longer strides and twist­ing their paws as they ap­proach the area. This makes a bear look larger than it is, in­tim­i­dat­ing ri­vals,” Mc­far­land ex­plains. “This area used to be full of bears— the sign is ev­ery­where.”

Stand­ing on the shore, Frost as­tounds me by cor­rectly iden­ti­fy­ing fe­male salmon while they’re still swim­ming in the wa­ter.

“The salmon with eroded and white tails are fe­males,” he says. “Their tails get de­te­ri­o­rated from dig­ging redds in the gravel.”

Nights with the chi­nook squad are just as il­lu­mi­nat­ing. You know you’re around a good camp­fire when some­one con­jures a plas­tic liter bot­tle of Kirk­land bour­bon, then spends the next 10 min­utes pro­fanely de­fend­ing its du­bi­ous prove­nance against the in­evitable slurs from his un­show­ered yet pre­sum­ably more cul­ti­vated peers.

Far from civ­i­liza­tion, a par­tic­u­larly rowdy “Sasquatch:

real or not” de­bate rages long past mid­night. When a staunch ’Squatch de­fender ad­mits he can some­times be a lit­tle ir­ra­tional even in the face of rea­son, one of the party hoots, “Well, shit, you al­ready told us you voted for Trump, so we all know you’re not gonna be per­suaded by logic!”

The jab is ac­cepted in the same spirit with which it was de­liv­ered—with gusto and a long bout of boom­ing laugh­ter. Was this re­ally a po­lit­i­cal de­bate with no ran­cor or per­sonal re­crim­i­na­tion? That’s as rare th­ese days as wild chi­nook salmon. In the right com­pany, and with a strong hit of Kirk­land’s finest, you start be­liev­ing old­world won­ders can be re­vived.

KING’S RAN­SOM

In the end, the king salmon’s value above all other fish might be what ei­ther saves it or dooms it to ex­tinc­tion. This past sum­mer, along the Yukon River, fish­er­men were get­ting $5.50 per pound for kings from buy­ers. Com­pare that with chum salmon, which sold for 60 cents a pound or sil­ver salmon at $1 a pound. And that’s pre-mar­ket. The price for wild Cop­per River chi­nooks reached an as­tound­ing $75 per pound at Seat­tle’s Pike Street Mar­ket in 2017. Ac­cord­ing to Seitz, that puts wild kings among the most ex­pen­sive fish in the world, up there with giant bluefin tuna cov­eted by sushi restau­rants around the world.

I’m not go­ing to tell you which side of the Sasquatch de­bate he was on, but Fish and Game’s Jones is con­fi­dent there’ll be a re­bound. Fish pop­u­la­tions are cycli­cal, he points out. Even if the cur­rent cy­cle shows chill­ing anom­alies, he be­lieves his­tory will win out.

“The chi­nook will cy­cle back,” he says. “I’ll take bets on it.”

“The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for that con­fi­dence,” says Seitz, who agrees with Jones, “is that the fresh­wa­ter habi­tat of chi­nooks in Alaska is rel­a­tively in­tact, com­pared with else­where in the species’ range, like the Columbia River.”

Iso­lated in­di­ca­tors sup­port ten­u­ous op­ti­mism. The 2017 Yukon River chi­nook run was the strong­est it has been since 2003, with more than 250,000 king salmon pass­ing through man­age­ment sonar sta­tions. Seitz calls this “noth­ing short of a mir­a­cle.” The Nushagak River, which feeds into Bris­tol Bay, also had what Seitz calls a pos­i­tive re­turn.

“Chi­nooks are dif­fer­ent than other West Coast fish. There’s a deeper cul­tural con­nec­tion to them,” says Seitz. “To some peo­ple, there may be no dif­fer­ence be­tween the kings and other salmon species. But to you and me, there is.”

Jones puts a finer point on the chi­nook’s ex­cep­tion­al­ism.

“It’s a ma­jor war out there over this re­source,” he says. “If this fish­ery col­lapses, it’ll be like the end of the world up here.”

In the end, the king salmon’s value above all other fish might be what ei­ther saves it or dooms it to ex­tinc­tion.

Re­searchers work doggedly to find out why wild chi­nook salmon aren’t re­turn­ing to his­toric strongholds like Tseta Creek.

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