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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Why Are Alaskan Fish Stocks So Healthy?
It’s no accident. Thanks to science-based sustainability plans, wild Alaskan salmon are a compelling environmental success story. 04/22/2021 by Nathaniel Scharping

If you’re eating wild-caught salmon in the U.S. today, there’s a good chance it came from Alaska. Fishermen there sustainably catch more than 100 million salmon every year. But it could have turned out very differently. It’s worth taking a moment to consider just how rare pristine wild-caught fish have become, and the fact that the continuing health of Alaska’s extraordinary resource is no accident.

In the 1950s, decades of mismanagement brought Alaskan salmon populations to the brink of destruction. At the time, rampant overfishing meant that half as many fish were being harvested per year compared to the 1930s. The crisis led Alaska, which had just received statehood, to take decisive action to save a way of life that had sustained families for generations (Clark RH et al., 2006).

Today, Alaska is home to some of the best-managed fisheries in the world, situated in the clean ocean waters surrounding our northernmost state. It’s also where Vital Choice sources much of its salmon and other seafood. Strong collaborations between scientists, policymakers, and fishermen have created a robust, sustainable fishing industry. And Alaska now provides millions of pounds of seafood to the nation while ensuring the health of future fish populations (Hillborn R et al., 2003).

That’s good news for seafood lovers everywhere. Salmon is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and antioxidants. They’re a great source of nutrient-rich protein, too. That makes wild-caught salmon a tasty way to keep your body healthy.

The Life of Alaskan Salmon

Midnight Alaska style with twlight sky and open water
Bristol Bay, Alaska, is the destination for millions of salmon born in the headwaters of rivers such as the Kvichak, Naknek, Egegik, Nushagak, and Ugashik.

Chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye salmon are born in freshwater rivers in Alaska’s wild interior, which flow into the massive Bristol Bay in western Alaska.

Young fish are born in pristine gravel beds, and then, depending on the species, mature in clean, unspoiled rivers and lakes, eating zooplankton and small crustaceans. When they're big enough, the salmon migrate to the ocean, transitioning from freshwater to saltwater. Perhaps of greatest significance, their journey is unimpeded by dams, industrial salmon farms, and other human obstacles that have devastated so many wild salmon populations in other parts of the world. (EPA, 2014).

Salmon spend a few years in the open ocean, feasting on small fish, crustaceans and other prey rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy nutrients. When it’s time for them to mate, mature salmon venture back into the rivers they were born in, fighting their way upstream to ancestral breeding grounds to find a partner.

Salmon fishermen take advantage of the annual Alaskan salmon run, one of the largest in the world, to harvest their catch. Today in Alaska, fishermen can haul in more than 800 million pounds of salmon a year. That’s a lot of fish – over 200 million, to be precise - but it’s possible only because the salmon harvest is carefully monitored to ensure enough salmon make it through to mate and create the next generation of fish.

Today, the wild Alaskan salmon harvest is overseen by the Board of Fisheries and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, supported by scientific advisors. Researchers at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and elsewhere use field research and mathematical models to estimate the health of fish populations every year. Then, officials use that data to set yearly quotas limiting the number of salmon harvested to sustainable levels (Grabacki S, 2008).

Maintaining Sustainable Fisheries

Managing a complex ecosystem to preserve it for future generations takes a lot of work. Researchers must keep tabs not only on the salmon but also the ecology of the northern Pacific and Arctic Oceans, as well as the Bering Sea. Researchers and fisheries officials use studies that look at the health of the ecosystem as a whole as well as research on the status of individual species. They monitor the size and health of fish populations and combine that knowledge with laboratory studies and statistical modeling to create an accurate picture of Alaskan fisheries’ health. The result is a closely monitored and certifiably healthy wild ecosystem that can sustain commercial fishing without compromising natural resources.

Alaska state trooper official batch icon on clothing
The state of Alaska employs almost 100 troopers whose sole job is to prevent illegal fishing.

In addition to scientific expertise, Alaskan fisheries also benefit from strong legal protections. Indeed, the principles of sustainable fishing are written into Article VIII of the state’s constitution. Fishing is prohibited in sensitive areas critical to the health of marine life.

All of which helps explain why Alaskan fisheries are considered to be some of the most sustainable anywhere in the world. They’ve been recognized by environmental agencies including the Marine Stewardship Council and the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative for their environmental stewardship. Many fish from Alaska have made the “Best Choices” list from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Vital Choice products have also been awarded chain-of-custody certification by the State of Alaska's FAO-Based Responsible Fisheries (RFM) Management program. (Read about our Sustainability Stance here.)

"The United States has some of the best-regulated wild fisheries in the world, especially in Alaska, where stocks of wild salmon, halibut and other fish are all generally well-managed,” Andy Sharpless, CEO of Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization, said in his book “The Perfect Protein.”

Alaska also benefits from historically pure waters, the result of vast tracts of unspoiled land in the state’s interior and coastlines. These wild spaces ensure fish aren’t contaminated with toxins like PCBs, short for polychlorinated biphenyls, which are industrial chemicals often found in more urban waterways.

Wild Salmon, Never Farmed

Alaska’s decades-long commitment to sustainable fishing practices has helped avoid a trend prevalent in other fisheries. Faced with steep demand and declining harvests, fishermen elsewhere in the world are turning to aquaculture. These fish are raised in net pens, crammed together and fed an often less-healthy mixture of feeder fish and cheap additives such as seed oil.

The fish-farming industry has exploded in recent decades in places like Norway and Scotland, both countries with a long history of fishing. Advocates say the industry is offering a more efficient way to meet global seafood demand. But environmentalists and nutritionists alike have raised concerns.

When fish are raised in net pens, rather than roaming free in the ocean, they’re more prone to pathogens and parasites, like sea lice. Infestations can spread quickly in the close quarters of a net pen, and there’s strong evidence they can pass to wild salmon, endangering their populations. This year, such evidence led to the closure of several British Columbia salmon farms linked to diminishing wild salmon populations. 

A 2017 net pen collapse in Washington state led to 300,000 non-native Atlantic salmon escaping into the environment. Invasive Atlantic salmon have also been found in the rivers of British Columbia and along the Pacific Coast in Chile. They were brought there by the fish farming industry (Volpe et al, 2001; Soto et al., 2001). These invasive fish compete with wild salmon for food, and might interbreed with native populations (Naylor et al., 2005).

Farmed fish also offer fewer health benefits than their wild counterparts. Faced with a shortage of wild-caught feeder fish, farmers have started supplementing their feed with additives that tip the balance of healthy omega-3 fatty acids vs. inflammatory omega-6s in the wrong direction. Omega-3s are important for our bodies in numerous ways: they’re part of the fundamental makeup of our cells and they play a vital role in brain and joint health, cardiovascular function and much more.

In contrast to the artificial diets of farmed fish, wild salmon spend their lives eating prey that delivers omega-3 and other nutrients straight from the ocean. The result for us is a meal packed with healthy fats, flash-frozen straight out of the ocean. Again, there is no fish-farming in Alaskan waters, so the wild salmon, with proper management, should remain healthy and abundant.

Paired with the knowledge that wild Alaskan salmon populations are supported by science-backed sustainability management, it makes for a meal that’s healthy in multiple ways. But its continuation is far from ordained. Alaskan salmon is an environmental success story that requires constant vigilance by all of us – politicians, fishing crews, Alaska residents and consumers – to remain the best in the world.

 

Sources:

  • Clark JH, Mcgregor AJ, Mecum RD, Carroll AM. The Commercial Salmon Fishery in Alaska. Alaska Fishery Research Bulletin. Volume 12, No.1 Summer 2006. http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/FedAidpdfs/AFRB.12.1.001-146.pdf
  • EPA. An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Bristol Bay, Alaska. 2014. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-05/documents/bristol_bay_assessment_final_2014_vol1.pdf
  • Hilborn R, Quinn TP, Schindler DE, Rogers DE. Biocomplexity and fisheries sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2003;100(11):6564-6568. doi:10.1073/pnas.1037274100
  • Grabacki S. Sustainable Management of Alaska’s Fisheries: A Primer.; 2008. Accessed December 29, 2020. https://www.alaskaseafood.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/SustainabilityWhitePaper.pdf
  • Naylor R, Hindark K, Fleming IA, eta l. Fugitive Salmon: Assessing the Risks of Escaped Fish from Net-Pen Aquaculture. BioScience. 2005;55(5):427. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0427:fsatro]2.0.co;2
  • Soto D, Jara F, Moreno C. Escaped Salmon In The Inner Seas, Southern Chile: Facing Ecological and Social Conflicts. Ecological Applications. 2001;11(6):1750-1762. doi:10.1890/1051-0761(2001)011[1750:esitis]2.0.co;2
  • Volpe JP, Glickman BW, Anholt BR. Reproduction of Aquaculture Atlantic Salmon in a Controlled Stream Channel on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society. 2001;130(3):489-494. doi:10.1577/1548-8659(2001)130<0489:roaasi>2.0.co;2
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