Sustainability in Action
Even though it is a culinary buzzword these days, sustainability has been a driving force in Alaska’s fishing industry since statehood.
When Alaska joined the Union in 1959, the state’s founding fathers were steadfastly committed to protecting and preserving one of the region’s most precious resources. In fact, the state constitution states that “fish…be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle.” Translation: Alaska’s salmon fisheries are sustainable – it’s the law.
A true commitment to preservation and protection requires more than buzzwords, however. It requires a continuous commitment of time, resources, science-based research, and close enforcement of rules. Indeed, all of those things are practiced and demonstrated during the frenetic weeks of the Bristol Bay sockeye run. In Bristol Bay, where hundreds of generations have relied on salmon, the commercial fishery is still managed for future generations.
Working on small boats (only 32 feet in length), with just 3-4 crew members, Bristol Bay fishermen navigate the choppy waters and set their salmon nets. Fishing is only allowed during certain brief windows of time, as specified by state biologists, who monitor the fleet’s catch and count fish as they move into protected spawning areas. It is this balance of catch with “escapement,” – the salmon that are allowed to move unimpeded through the fishing areas and upstream to the spawning beds – that biologists strive for.
The size of Bristol Bay’s salmon runs prove the success of this escapement-based management approach. Over the last twenty years, an average of 38 million sockeye have returned to Bristol Bay each year. How many salmon is that? Well, if 38 million sockeye were arranged nose-to-tail, they would stretch from Bristol Bay to Australia and back.
Each summer the sockeye salmon, an anadromous species, instinctively migrate back through Bristol Bay and up the rivers to the lakes of their birth-place completing the natural rhythm of their life cycle.
Adult females create a redd, or nest, in the gravel to lay eggs, which are then fertilized by male sockeye. The bright red eggs stay buried in the gravel through the winter. In spring, the developing alevin, or young salmon, emerge with a yolk sac intact.
Fry & Smolt
Once the alevin shed their sac, they become "fry" and start to explore their freshwater environment. After seven or eight months the fry travel down-stream, gradually acclimate to sale water and prepare for life in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. At this point, they are called smolt and weigh only a few ounces.
As adults in the Bering Sea and North Pacific, sockeye feed freely on krill and zooplankton, and mature to an average adult weight of about six pounds. Before they head home to spawn, the sockeye feed heavily to build up their stores of essential fatty acids and nutrients.
The Portfolio Effect
This diversity helps to ensure a remarkably stable overall balance in the region’s sockeye populations. Referred to by scientists as the “portfolio effect,” this genetic diversity reflects the diversity of the ecosystem itself, and helps prevent the wild swings and precipitous declines in salmon populations that have often occurred outside of Alaska.
Put another way, the portfolio effect acts as a balancing and stabilizing mechanism for salmon populations in the same way that a well-diversified financial portfolio does for investments. Bristol Bay’s salmon industry pre-dates Alaska’s first Gold Rush, and after 130 years of steady fishing in Bristol Bay, our investments in sustainability are paying off better than ever!