June 30, 2009 – At Sea, 64 30N 165 25W
by Herb McCormick
(June 30): Somebody up there must like us. By mid-afternoon today, Ocean Watch continued to make rapid progress on the current Alaskan leg from Dutch Harbor to Nome, and had closed to under a hundred miles to go, averaging about 8-knots under reefed main and chugging diesel. The barometer remained elevated and the ETA for the port, tucked into a Bering Sea off-ramp called Norton Sound, was very early Wednesday morning. The forecasters say big southerlies are nipping at our heels, but at this rate we’ll be safely tied up before they bear down.
Skipper Mark Schrader noted the following early today: “We’re running with a low southwesterly swell over some very shallow water. Depth at the moment, measured from under the keel to the bottom, is 33-feet. Charted depths in this portion of the Bering Sea range from 20-feet to 50-feet. The Missouri River runs deeper than most of the delta in Norton Sound-a little startling when OW sails over an area less than 20-feet deep with no land in sight. This will be a common theme ahead. The first two-thirds of the Northwest Passage-from Barrow east-will be in very shallow water.”
At the moment, however, to borrow a phrase from our Aussie friends: No worries, mate. This leg from Dutch Harbor has been a charmed run.
Not to dampen the mood, but the unexpected ease of the trip has allowed us to catch up on our reading, particularly as it relates to the Alaskan waters through which we’ve been sailing for most of the last three weeks. It brought to mind some famous lyrics by the Beatles: “I read the news today, oh boy…”
We’ll begin with a story from the 2009 edition of the Unalaska and Dutch Harbor Official Visitors Guide, in an article called “Discover Sustainable Fisheries” by Frank Kelty. Considering the source, we expect a high level of optimism, and at the outset, our expectations are met:
“Historically our community has benefited from the rich fishery resources of the Bering Sea,” writes Kelty. “For the past 19 years, Unalaska has been the nation’s number one commercial fishing port in terms of pounds landed (800-900 million pounds/year)… In 2006, Unalaska broke its own national record with landings of 911 million pounds valued at $165 million.”
That’s pretty good, except when we realize that the year Kelty describes was 2006, and the story is in the 2009 guide. The numbers are well off, and it’s not because the fisherman aren’t trying as hard.
Then there’s the development of the Bering Sea Red King Crab fishery, which in the 1970s through the early 1980s “changed the character of Unalaska from a quiet village of 400 people to a boom town of 4,000. As with the gold rushes of earlier days, many came to Unalaska with dreams of making their fortune. King Crab harvest levels climbed from 30 million pounds during the 1970s to 130 million pounds in 1980.
“Dramatically, however, within a two-year period, the crab resource totally collapsed, sending shockwaves throughout the community and the crabbing industry… It should be noted,” Kelty notes, in an observation about the crab limits now in place, that “those crab stocks, most likely, were impacted by climatic factors, rather than fishing activity.”
Well, great. But if that is the good news from the official organ of the Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.unalaska.info), you’d hate to see the bad. As it turns out, the June 25th edition of The Dutch Harbor Fisherman (www.thedutchharborfisherman.com) takes care of that.
In a piece by Denby S. Lloyd called “Context, respect vital to fishery management,” the author recounts a visit to the lower Yukon River, where he met with “knowledgeable employees from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to discuss this summer’s Chinook salmon management and recent activity by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to curb by catch of Chinook by the Pollock trawl fleets in the Bering Sea.”
You’ve heard about those Pollock guys. They had a great year. In 2006.
Lloyd writes: “We knew we were repeating distressing news. As far as we can project, the commercial fishery for Chinook will not open in the Yukon River, yet again, this year… Yukon River Chinook runs have been poor the last two years and spawning escapement for the up-river, Canadian-bound stocks failed to meet similar goals. Prospects for 2009 are similar…
“We (also) heard concerns about other potential impacts to Chinook salmon: jet boats, mining and timber harvests on spawning grounds; lack of adequate fisheries enforcement; climate change; effects of management actions and shifting fishing effort to later in the season. We all agreed we need a better understanding of Chinook salmon declines.”
Well, yikes. But certainly things are better in other parts of the state, right?
In a piece entitled “Gulf of Alaska’s Salmon Become Scarce as Ocean Currents Shift,” published in the June 20th edition of the Anchorage Daily News, reporter Craig Medred writes, “A second straight year of weak king salmon returns around the rim of the Gulf of Alaska has state fisheries biologists wondering if they might be staring into the face of a bleak future.”
He continues: “Troubling discussions of PDO-an acronym for something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation-have been spreading coast-wide as kings come back weak in river after river. Historically, there are indications that geographically widespread weaknesses like these are tied to a shift, or oscillation, in Pacific Ocean currents that causes cooler waters to pool in the Gulf of Alaska.”
A previous “cool phase” from 1947 to 1976 “corresponds neatly with the last big crash in king numbers in Cook Inlet,” writes Medred. Many fisheries biologists agree that overfishing is part of the problem, but fisheries scientist Steven Hare has identified climate as a significant factor, as well.
In the mid-1990s, Hare “linked the shifts in Alaska salmon runs to shifts in ocean-water temperatures and coined the phrase Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Fisheries biologists have been talking about PDO ever since, but it took on a new significance last year after ocean temperatures dipped and Kodiak Island, Susitna Valley and Kenai Peninsula king runs all plummeted.
“The downward trends have only grown worse this year,” says Medred. “The king fishing season should at this moment be in full swing across the region, but faltering returns have forced closures of major Kodiak, Kenai, Susitna, and Copper River waters. And where streams aren’t closed, there are still worries.
“Given the spread of faltering runs from Kodiak Island all the way to the Stikine River in Southeast Alaska, fisheries biologists believe they know where things went wrong: ‘In the ocean,’ more than a dozen said when interviewed this week. The how and why of went wrong there, however, leaves them scratching their heads.”
Medred quotes a state researcher named Keith Pahlke, whose confusion about it all is actually rather eloquent: “It’s a big black box out there. Things have been wacky.”
The only thing that is clear is that water temperatures driven by ocean currents play a key role in the health and wellbeing of Alaskan king salmon, and that the aforementioned PDO is currently out of phase. In the simplest of terms, warm waters are good for the kings, while cooler waters-such as those currently being experienced-are not. To add to the confusion, salmon biologists believe that cooling ocean temperatures in Alaska benefit king salmon runs in the Columbia River to the south, but that hasn’t happened either.
Oh boy, indeed.
Aboard Ocean Watch, we’ve been startled on numerous occasions by the remarkable beauty we’ve encountered here in Alaska. And, quite frankly, at least in my personal encounters, everyone seems to take such glum news as pretty matter-of-fact. Yes, fishing here used to be off the charts. And now? Not so much. Let’s just move on.
As we continue northward, to those reading in the Lower 48, there just may be a message that needs to be sent, and the hearty, hardworking Alaskans we’ve met may just be too proud to send it. We wouldn’t be so presumptuous to do so ourselves, but Lennon and McCartney and his pals from Liverpool made a movie with a very apt title.
- Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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