State of the Salmon: The declining populations of wild salmon pose a significant concern. Discover insights from biologists on the current situation and learn about actionable steps you can take to contribute to conservation efforts.

state of the salmon

With barely a moment to even settle in, it happened. Like a lightning strike, and in such an uncustomary short period of time, the rod next to my fishing partner lurched forward. It was a “takedown” so savage it actually rocked the drift boat, catapulting us into the excitement and insanity that every king angler craves. A strain on the rod so tremendous it can barely be pried from its holder. Then paddling for all I’m worth, a frantic chase between rocks, a feeble attempt to keep up, all played to the delirious tune of a squealing reel. For someone who hasn’t experienced a Kenai king it’s difficult to imagine its fury, testing the fisherman and his equipment to their very core. It’s for all these reasons the king, the state fish of Alaska, is so cherished. It has the ability to take hold of you and affect the very way we think about fishing. It can literally be life altering.

I wrote this in 2012, just after fishing for kings (Chinook) on the Kenai River…perhaps for the last time. On that day we eventually landed and released a 50-pounder and reached the take-out with several hook-ups and a 30-pounder in the box. We’d been lucky enough to hit one of two days of high returns. Unfortunately, a week later the river closed to the retention of kings, and soon, for the first time in memory, it was closed to fishing for kings altogether. For several years prior to this, there had been discussions about the “sudden” decline of Chinook, not only in the Kenai River, but in all of Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island, as well as the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. It had scientists scratching their heads, many maintaining that it was likely a natural, cyclical occurrence.

Dwindling Numbers of King Salmon

That was still the hope when Trout Unlimited (TU) Alaska hosted a “Chinook Panel” in Anchorage seven years ago. This event coincided with a state mandate and funds designed to study the dwindling numbers of king salmon being seen throughout the state. At the time, there were still a few rays of optimism. Bristol Bay’s mighty Nushagak River, as well as a handful of other western Alaska streams, were seeing low but-still-acceptable returns of this iconic fish. This allowed many to hold out faith that the numbers would eventually rebound. Unfortunately, that rebound has not occurred, and in fact, those streams, like the Nushagak, have trended downward along with other river systems throughout the state.

State of the Salmon

Last year, Trout Unlimited Alaska hosted a similar presentation and panel discussion at Kenai Peninsula College, which we called “State of the Salmon.” The evening started with a presentation by Dr. Peter Westley, professor of fisheries with the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. This was followed by a panel that included Dr. Westley, along with Sue Mauger, Science Director with Cook Inletkeeper, and Adam Reimer, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). What we heard was not necessarily encouraging, especially for Chinook. Watch the entire presentation on TU’s YouTube channel.

Reasons for the decline of Chinook populations, and now in many places chum and coho, vary, making it difficult for scientists to pinpoint a single cause. There are likely many, with the most acute being climate change and rising water temperatures, according to the panel. Intertidal zones in the ocean as well as freshwater environments have continued to see drastic increases in water temperature. Westley used the Yukon River, where stocks have plummeted, as an example. He described the Yukon as “historically warm,” with fish showing classic signs of heat stress, and in the summer of 2019 even experiencing massive pre-spawn die-offs.

state of the salmon

A Kenai River Chinook harvested before closures went into effect. © Jim Quinn

Hatchery and Wild Salmon Compete for Resources

Another factor in declining populations may be ocean carrying capacity. Hatcheries have been proliferating for decades, especially pink- and chum hatcheries, not only in the US, but in Russia and Japan as well. These hatcheries release millions of fish that compete for food with wild salmon. The ocean, once thought to have unlimited capacity, actually has limited ability to produce enough food for all these salmon, and some species may be suffering as a result. That competition with other fish, along with increased predation, may in many cases also be leading to smaller-sized fish returning to spawn, even in seemingly healthy populations.

Studies are continually showing declining size, Westley pointed out, something he maintains should be an important part of the conversation. Larger fish, particularly larger females, produce more eggs and larger eggs. “The point is that you have disproportionate declines of reproductive potential if you have declines in body size,” he said. “Really, what that’s suggesting is the importance of big, fat, old female fish.”

Increased Parasite Infection Rates

Westley also pointed out during the presentation that another concern has been an increase in infection rates for Icthyophonus, a naturally occurring pathogenic parasite found in harvested salmon. He said it isn’t clear where exactly the fish are encountering the parasite, but in 2020, almost half of Yukon salmon surveyed showed signs of the infection.

If that isn’t enough, salmon are facing increased predation from large marine mammals, such as seals, sea lions and killer whales. With increased protections for natural predators there are now more of them than ever out there preying upon these fish. There is also the issue of human predation, which takes many forms, but which may be of most concern when it comes to bycatch by the trawl industry. This was brought up almost immediately during the panel. While panelists agreed bycatch was not the main factor, it was important to take what is being caught by trawlers into account, especially at times of low abundance. Should the trawl fleet be catching and wasting Chinook and chum salmon when many river systems are completely shut down and subsistence users are not being allowed to harvest any?

Conserving Alaska’s Diverse Ecosystem

When searching for some bright spots in all of this, we can look to increased populations of sockeye in places like Bristol Bay, which has seen record returns in recent years. Here, climate change may actually be affecting conditions for sockeye positively, at least for the time being. Having a still intact, very diverse ecosystem is also a major factor in that fishery remaining one of our brightest regions for salmon. With a system so large and as yet pristine, we have true diversity, where if one stream has a downturn others in the system tend to make up for it. Conserving this diversity, here and elsewhere, is a key component in maintaining resiliency in a more challenging and uncertain future.

So, what can we do to try and stave off declines or at least attempt to maintain our current salmon runs?

The first and easiest step is to protect and maintain in-stream habitat, and advocate for curbing development in riparian zones.
Next, get involved with restoration and rehabilitation efforts on local streams, repairing riparian areas, planting vegetation, and setting habitat fencing. These are efforts that many local groups, such as TU, are currently undertaking, along with the help of volunteers.
Educate yourself on the environmental issues, the politics, the Board of Fish process, and see what actions might be taken to influence or even change the process in which fisheries are dealt.
Advocate for the future you want to see for fish. Politics and environmental challenges are inextricably entwined, and our politicians are not always listening to what scientists are saying. Advocate for more protections for our fisheries, more funds for research and restoration.

Dave Atcheson is Special Projects Assistant for Trout Unlimited Alaska. He is also the author of several books, including Hidden Alaska, Dead Reckoning, and Canoeing Yaghanen. For more info:


For more reading about the state of the salmon, check out the Conservation Blog by Fish Alaska.