SAFS Newsletter Masthead

Autumn 2012–
Winter 2013

Banner photos (left to right): Jackie Carter, Jeremy Monroe, Amanda Phillips, Jonathan Moore

Students sampling juvenile coho salmon in the Lake Aleknagik watershed.
Photo by Jackie Carter.

The Alaska Salmon Program

The ecosystems of western Alaska are home to some of the world’s largest runs of wild salmon and support some of the most valuable fisheries in the history of US commercial fishing. These fisheries are as productive now as they ever have been, and are internationally recognized as leading examples of sustainability.

The Alaska Salmon Program (ASP), a SAFS program now more than 65 years old, developed many of the original methods and data needed to sustainably manage Alaskan salmon. Over its history, the ASP has accumulated one of the world’s most extensive long-term datasets that continues to be used to evaluate ecological responses to fisheries exploitation and climate change, and to assess potential risks to these ecosystems from the watershed development emerging in western Alaska.

In 2012, the American Fisheries Society recognized the regional, national, and international accomplishments of the ASP by naming it as the recipient of the prestigious Carl R. Sullivan Fisheries Conservation Award.

The President of the Society noted that, “Alaska Salmon Program at the University of Washington was selected for this award because this program is without question one of the most outstanding models anywhere of a working laboratory. With its direct connections to local communities and the global community, the program provides amazing educational and scientific outreach.”

To celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of the ASP, we have dedicated this article to a short history of the program, an overview of its recent accomplishments, and some glimpses into its future.

The Early Years

Commercial salmon fisheries developed in western Alaska in the late 1800s and rapidly became a producer that rivaled any salmon fishery in the world. By 1900, stocks were heavily exploited, supporting an enormous industry focused on producing canned salmon for international markets. Reduced catches in the 1940s were cause for alarm within the salmon canning industry, which saw a need to manage such profitable resources scientifically.

In 1945, the canning industry approached the University of Washington’s Director of the School of Fisheries, William F. Thompson, to develop a program to improve understanding of the biology of salmon and their ecosystems. This led to the establishment of the Fisheries Research Institute (FRI) in 1947.

FRI developed a science and monitoring program in the watersheds of the Wood, Kvichak, and Chignik rivers. The initial science program was remarkable in that it used what we now call an “ecosystem approach” to understanding salmon ecology, while navigating the formidable practical challenges of performing research in a remote and challenging wilderness. The development of the field program is described in detail by past FRI Director Robert “Bud” L. Burgner in his book, My Career with Fisheries Research Institute, University of Washington. (See the ASP website for more information.)

The current program maintains many of the original methods for observing salmon and their freshwater habitats, and now provides the only long-term environmental baseline in western Alaska against which potential impacts of emerging environmental threats can be measured. The monitoring program has a broad emphasis, spanning hydrology, limnology, and stream ecology, in addition to the ecology of salmon and their habitat requirements, which was the original research focus of FRI’s founding scientists (Bud Burgner, Ole Mathisen, Ted Koo, and their first cohort of graduate students, including Don Rogers).

Current students, staff, and faculty of the Alaska Salmon Program. Robert “Bud” Burgner front and center.
Photo: Jim Seeb.

The Present

Since its initial focused relationship with the canning industry, the ASP has also developed a broad base of col- laborators and constituents including state agencies (Alaska Departments of Fish and Game, and Parks and Recreation), federal agencies (US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Army Corps of Engineers), regional development associations (Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation), and commercial, sport, and subsistence fishers in western Alaska.

In recent years, ASP has expanded its research dimen- sions beyond its original “count, measure, and harvest salmon” mission:

  • SAFS professors Jim Seeb and Lisa Seeb use state-of-the-art genetics and genomics tools to better understand the relationship between salmon and their environment.
  • SAFS professor Lorenz Hauser is studying the controls on reproductive success by genetically identifying salmon offspring.
  • Bioeconomic analyses and geomorphology studies are being conducted to improve our understanding of watershed responses to changing climate, as well as studies linking terrestrial predators to salmon resources (for more information, see the ASP research webpage).

Research from the ASP has contributed directly to the successful management of regional salmon fisheries, but has also provided critical insights for developing sustainable fisheries globally. The program has produced more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific publications in the last 10 years; you can find the full citations and links to the articles at the ASP research webpage. These publications span topics ranging from bioeconomic assessments of harvesting strategies (Bue et al. 2009), to the effects of salmon biodiversity on sustainability of fisheries (Hilborn et al. 2003, Schindler et al. 2010), to the ecology of stream-dwelling fishes that depend on salmon resources (Denton et al. 2009, Armstrong et al. 2010), to the effects of bear predation and fishery selection on salmon evolution (Carlson et al. 2009, Kendall and Quinn 2009), to the effects of climate change on salmon populations in both historical (Rogers and Schindler 2011) and paleo-ecological time scales (Rogers et al. 2013).

The Challenges of Longevity

Since its inception, the UW–ASP has been supported largely through partnerships with the seafood processing industry. During the last decade, the program has expanded its research and education programs, and the funding base has diversified to support these missions. Efforts by the core SAFS faculty (Ray Hilborn, Tom Quinn, and Daniel Schindler) have garnered continued funding from the salmon processing and harvesting industry, the National Science Foundation (NSF), philanthropic foundations—especially the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation—and state and federal agencies.

Currently, the program is primarily supported by NSF through a grant to explore the social–economic feedbacks in western Alaska salmon fisheries in collaboration with professors Gunnar Knapp from the University of Alaska– Anchorage and Chris Costello from the University of California–Santa Barbara (more information at the ASP research webpage). Despite the extensive legacy of scientific contribution to salmon fisheries and aquatic ecology, the ASP funding base remains highly transitory—a serious hurdle to the long-term viability of our science and education programs. Ironically, while the strength of the ASP lies in long-term monitoring programs, the necessary long-term funding to maintain such programs continues to be difficult to obtain. Securing more stable funding to support these core activities remains a major programmatic goal.

To support the program, please see the Alaska Salmon Program Fund webpage.

Students sorting and measuring fish in a beach seine haul at Chignik Lake.
Photo: Jackie Carter