Something troubling is going on with the size of salmon coming in from Alaska. According to a new Bloomberg report, several species of the fish have shrunk in size so rapidly that two major food companies are altering their business plan. Whole Foods redid its guidelines on salmon purchasing, and Ivar’s — the iconic Pacific Northwest seafood chain — is increasingly sending more salmon back to the restaurant’s supplier because they are too small.
“You know that the thicker belly sections of big salmon cook the best — they remain sweet and moist over heat, where smaller fish and tail sections tend to cook quickly and therefore are prone to dry out,” Ivar’s president Bob Donegan tells Eater Seattle (the franchise location in Mukilteo Landing is the chain’s only restaurant open for full-service at the moment, but Salmon House and Acres of Clams will reopen in May). “It’s why we seek the biggest fishes we can find.”
The change in Alaskan salmon size has been happening for years. In 2020, scientists examined four of the five species of the fish in Alaska, and found that all the species they studied are smaller compared to pre-1990s sizes, with the Chinook shrinking the most at 8 percent, and sockeye shrinking the least at around 2 percent. These scientists also determined that the rate at which the salmon species shrunk was highest over the past decade. While experts haven’t quite found the root cause, smaller salmon are due partly to the fish returning from the ocean to freshwater streams at a younger age, and the 2020 study speculated that ecological disruptions “such as climate change and harvest” may be responsible for such declines in body size.
The concerns are also not just about size, but numbers. Here in Washington, the sockeye salmon count hit a record low at the end of 2020, a continuation of a steep decline from the previous year, setting off alarm bells for environmental and wildlife preservationists. One January 2021 report from the Seattle Times says “extinction looms” for the species, since there doesn’t seem to be a clear pathway to reverse the trend. A $31 million hatchery project from Seattle Public Utilities from 2011 hasn’t delivered the desired results of preserving salmon counts, and the problem of seeing a diminished salmon supply may only get worse, not just in Washington, but other regions in the Northwest. The Fraser River in British Columbia had record low sockeye counts in three of the past five years.
For Northwest fisheries, there’s worry that what happened to Atlantic cod — a complete collapse in the mid-90s, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs — will happen with Pacific salmon. If that occurs, then the whole supply chain, including restaurants, may feel an enormous impact. In May 2020, when the much-heralded Copper River salmon from Alaska arrived in Seattle (an annual hit at local seafood restaurants and markets), the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance was muted due to the pandemic, but there were also non-COVID related supply concerns. Catches for sockeye in the Copper River District were so low that local fisheries shut down for a full week. Thus, this May’s Copper River arrival bears close watching.
More diminutive salmon may already be affecting the bottom line for many companies in Alaska — 2020’s catch was down 56 percent from 2019. Though some of that decline may related to COVID impacts, the two could be interconnected. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, many tribal fisheries were already hurting after a decline in geoduck demand sent business plummeting in early 2020, and any downturn in other sources of revenue — such as salmon — won’t help.
But most concerning among environmentalists is what the news of smaller salmon presages for the ecosystem as a whole. In that respect, very few experts have been reassuring. Said Peter Westley of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the Bloomberg report, “When the size and the numbers [of salmon] go down that’s a harbinger of change that is taken as a red flag among many scientists.”