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.
Over the centuries, Bristol Bay’s massive network of rivers, lakes, streams and tributaries have given rise to many genetically diverse stocks of sockeye salmon.
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!