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As sockeye salmon boom in Alaska, is there a lesson for us in Washington?

caption: Adult coho and Chinook salmon swim in their raceway at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery after returning from the wild for spawning in October 2021.
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Adult coho and Chinook salmon swim in their raceway at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery after returning from the wild for spawning in October 2021.
Issaquah Salmon Hatchery/Oscar Kelley

This year, more than 78 million sockeye salmon returned to the estuaries of Western Alaska, a record high and a stark contrast with most salmon populations elsewhere as urban infrastructure and rising water temperatures threaten numerous species.

University of Washington professor Daniel Schindler told Soundside that sockeye salmon have been climate change winners in recent years, but the exact reason why remains unclear.

"In the case of understanding what mechanisms have produced so many Bristol Bay sockeye in the last few years, we may never truly understand the details of that," Schindler said. "But one thing that's clear is that the populations near the northern range of sockeye have done particularly well, during this last round of heat waves we've seen in the last decade, whereas populations to the south... those populations did quite poorly, following those heat waves."

Bristol Bay is one of the most important regions for commercial fishing in the world, drawing fleets from across the country, and is a mainstay for fisheries from Western Washington. The record climb in sockeye populations is good for companies looking to cash in on the annual runs in the summer months, but the success of the sockeye isn't shared with all species of salmon in Alaska.

Schindler said increases in sockeye, but drops in chinook and chum salmon, have rippling benefits and problems for those who depend on Bristol Bay economically.

"A lot of the business decisions associated with the fishery are actually based out of out of Western Washington, whether it's Seattle or places like Bellingham. And a lot of the fleets, the people who own permits to go commercially capture Bristol Bay salmon, many of them are Washington residents, and in fact are scattered across the U.S.," Schindler said. "And of course, they head north to fish Bristol Bay salmon, and then the revenues that they make, they take back to their home states and that wealth has spread elsewhere as well."

Schindler says there are lessons the pristine natural habitats of sockeye salmon can teach Washington. First, Washington salmon habitats have lost their complexity as urbanization has wrangled rivers for use in power production and agriculture. Second, Schindler cautions against the instinct to return urbanized habitats to the "ways they once were," noting that bodies of water are in a constant state of change.

"What we need to think about is that salmon ecosystems are this fluid thing that's always changing, is always responding to environmental change," he said. "And that fluidity is what we should be trying to manage our systems for."

Hear Soundside's full conversation with Daniel Schindler by clicking the audio above.

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