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Catching hypocrites? Alaska’s salmon run and the silent ‘dead loss’

By   /   September 13, 2013  /   News  /   7 Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Watchdog.org

Dead fish.

Wasted salmon, as far as the eye can see, washed up on the dark beaches of Alaska’s Naknek River, just before the 35-mile-long waterway opens up into the Kvichak Bay arm of the state’s famed Bristol Bay.

A video obtained by Watchdog.org shows a beach littered with lifeless sockeye and the incredible king salmon. The fish appear to be the leftovers of what state Fish and Game biologists describe as dead loss, in this case massive amounts of salmon that drop out of the commercial fishing boats’ curtainlike gill nets.


Casualties of war. That’s how one long-time commercial fisherman describes the dropouts in a fast and furious salmon fishing run.

Abe Williams, who shot the video in early July, says the section of dead fish spanned a mile and a half to two miles along the shore, littering the beach with thousands of spent salmon.

It’s part and parcel of the commercial fishing trade in the sockeye salmon capital of the world, where hordes of fishers pull tens of millions of fish from Bristol Bay within weeks.


SALMON RUN: Commercial fishermen pull out millions of sockeye salmon from Alaska’s Bristol Bay in just a few short weeks each year.

It’s also the kind of thing that typically would make the environmentalist and save-the-you-fill-in-the-blank movement cringe. But the fishing industry has found spiritual harbor in the Save Bristol Bay movement.

“The larger the runs, the heavier the fishing, the more dropouts you see,” said Williams, 42, who has commercially fished the salmon-rich cobalt waters of southwest Alaska since he was kid.

Glass houses

Such waste would seem to run counter to the image painted by the commercial fishing industry as protector of Alaska’s sacred salmon — particularly from the clutches of a proposed large-scale copper and gold mine the fishing trade, sport fishermen and environmentalists (Robert Redford stepping into the fray once again) paint as an unholy threat to the sockeye population.

And they implore President Barack Obama to use his administration’s authority to kill the Pebble mine project before a plan is submitted to environmental regulators. They warn such a mine would be disastrous to the Bristol Bay watershed, leaning on an Environmental Protection Agency assessment that many in the scientific community find flawed.

In short, mine opponents like the salmon industry, are making dire predictions that a mine proposal not even off the ground will lay waste to the region’s salmon population.

Kind of like the dead loss caused by the commercial fishing industry hungry for a big catch, hungry for profit?

“There are hundreds of thousands of fish wasted,” Williams said. “This is just one section of Bristol Bay.”

Williams , the commercial fisherman, he also heads up Nuna Resources, the nonprofit educational organization funded by the Pebble Limited Partnership. PLP is the mine developer, a joint interest of mega mining company Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals. The partnership has spent the past several years exploring the possibility of developing open-pit and underground mines at the east and west ends of a mineral deposit projected to be worth a half trillion dollars during the course of its mine life.

Williams said he has long listened as mine opponents, particularly the commercial fishing industry, spoke in self-righteous tones about a mine proposal that has yet to have a fair hearing.

“I was told as a young man, don’t throw rocks if you’re living in a glass house,” Williams said.  “I want to point out that our fishing industry is not this perfect industry.”

Williams said Alaska’s oil, gas and mining industries would be excoriated for wiping out and wasting as many salmon as the commercial fishing industry does every year.  Beyond the dead loss, Williams said some of the people who claim to be the defenders of the Bristol Bay region waterways are the same people dumping chemicals, junk and human waste into them.

Slim Morstad, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries for nearly 30 years, says it happens.

“It’s illegal but people do it,” he said, noting dump outs of oil, hydraulic fluid, antifreeze and other environmentally dangerous materials. “Hopefully, it’s rare.”

In fact, it’s hard to say how prevalent the practice of dumping is. As biologists like Morstad would say, it’s just the commercial fishing rigs alone in the water with their nets and their consciences.

Officials from several agencies, including the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, could not specify the frequency of environmental spills and other violations associated with the commercial fishing industry because the incidents are not broken down by industry.

Representatives from Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, a coalition of fishermen, and the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, did not return calls seeking comment.

‘It’s their loss’

Accidents, human error and weather-related mishaps are all part of the fishing trade in Bristol Bay.

In August, the U.S. Coast Guard fished out a 65-foot, Oregon-based fishing vessel that ran aground four miles west of Valdez, Alaska. The Fate Hunter, of Astoria, was carrying 1,500 gallons of diesel, 300 gallons of hydraulic oil, 100 gallons of lube oil and 75 tons of fish, according to The Associated Press. The Coast Guard reported a light sheen near the vessel, and its owner was working with responders to minimize the environmental impact, according to AP.

Matt Jones, an assistant area commercial fish biologist managing two fishing districts in Alaska, reviewed the video of the dead loss salmon sent to Watchdog.org. Jones said it appears there are more dropouts than is commonly seen after a fishing period.

“It appears to me likely that a storm was also at work when this fishing period was happening that produced this scene,” the biologist said in an email to Watchdog.org.

“There are always some fish seen on the beach like this, but an abundance as seen in this video is not common, but it happens when bad weather, gillnets, and a big push of fish happen in concert.  Some of this dead fish is simply a reality of catching tens of millions of sockeye within (two or three) weeks,” Jones added.

Even massive fish loss like the one recorded in Williams’ video is not against the law. Morstad said the loss is on the commercial fishermen who let those big ones get away.

“It’s their loss,” the agent said.

The state sets annual goals for spawning and escapement, the number of fish allowed to escape the fishery and spawn. The idea, Morstad said, is to keep a healthy balance and sustain the salmon population critical to Alaska’s seafood industry. If commercial fishermen miss a catch, that’s on their balance sheets, not the natural balance.

The bottom line, it’s tough being a salmon, said Morstad, who is planning to retire in May and start a peach orchard in Virginia.

“It’s nature,” he said.

Williams said the point is this: Accidents and man-made disasters happen every day in Alaska’s fishing industry. And the people who claim to be the protectors of the salmon and their waters, don’t always come through.

So, Williams asks, why does the industry judge a proposed mine development for its treatment of the Bristol Bay region before developers have a chance to state their case to regulators?

“Things are taking place in this day and age in our commercial fishing industry, things that would not be tolerated in the oil and gas industry or the mining industry,” he said. “Here we have massive dead loss in a huge way that everyone overlooks.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

  • Salmon Ranching

    We have linked to your article in our blog posting on the same subject. http://alaskasalmonranching.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/people-in-glass-houses-shouldnt-throw-golden-nuggets/

  • Nate

    Not sure how a video showing dead salmon on a beach is promoted as “dead loss”. They look spawned out to me. That’s what salmon do, spawn and die. So the mine promoters hire a fisherman to talk rass and you folks promote it?

  • Nate

    Cute how you have a photo of a purseseiner hauling a bag while dissing gillnetters.


    After a big couple days of fishing, dropouts are pretty common on parts of the beach, although not normally in numbers like this. Hard to say from the video, likely some of those dropouts date back a few weeks, and the aggregation over time makes it appear alarming. Like the biologist said in the article, heavy fishing, combined with the right weather and tide, could easily push an entire bay’s worth of dropouts up on just one beach.

    Also, someone should let Watchdog know the boat pictured is a seiner and has no relevance to the article.

    Looks wasteful, but the Bristol Bay beach where we live has dropouts (fewer in number though), which are feasted upon by foxes, bears, eagles, and bugs… No salmon goes to “waste” in AK. As long as spawning escapement goals are met, in my opinion this is a non-concern.

  • Chris

    Maybe they are dropouts and maybe they are spawnouts. If we are going to have this discussion lets use facts and data. And remember this video is posted by a guy being paid by the Pebble Partnership.

  • Brian S

    Have to agree with Nate, on both accounts. Have been a fisherman all my life, both seining, & gillnetting, owned both. Evidently, common sense (or ignorance) doesn’t seem to matter……..

  • A hypocrites reply

    I would bet the fish littering the beaches are “yellow fins” or spawned out salmon.
    Nice picture of the purse seiner. I wonder where he was fishing since we know it wasn’t in Bristol Bay.