Report cites climate change for collapse of Western Alaska salmon runs

The collapse of Western Alaska salmon runs has been among the most consequential climate change impacts in the rapidly warming Arctic over the past two years, according to an annual report assembled by a federal agency.

The 2023 Arctic Report Card, released Dec. 12 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, includes a special chapter on Alaska salmon among its updates to sea ice, air temperature and permafrost conditions in a region of the world that is warming up to four times as fast as the global average.

Western Alaska salmon runs provide a “particularly clear picture” of how ocean warming affects ecosystems, said Daniel Schindler, a University of Washington fisheries expert who was a contributing Arctic Report Card author.

Climate change in Alaska is not simply something expected in the future, said Schindler, who spoke Dec. 12 at a news conference held at the American Geophysical Union’s annual gathering in San Francisco.

“It’s happening now. It’s been happening for decades. Whether you’re talking about fish or people or birds, there are real impacts that we need to deal with right now,” he said.

Rick Thoman, of the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, delivered a similar message at the news conference. “As Alaskans, as people of the Arctic, we are living this change every day. We have no choice, no choice at all, other than to work with what is happening.” He is one of the Arctic Report Card editors.

The report described numerous extremes over the past year — the warmest Arctic summer on record, the lowest North American late-spring snowpack, the sixth-lowest minimum sea ice extent measured in the satellite era, with August sea surface temperatures 9 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit above 1991-2020 average for that month.

The eight warmest years in the Arctic measured since 1900 have all occurred since 2016, co-author Tom Ballinger of UAF said at the news conference. As in past years, UAF scientists were among the main contributors to the Arctic Report Card.

When it comes to salmon, the warming climate that triggered chinook and chum salmon crashes had the reverse effect on Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, which spawn and grow in lakes rather than in rivers, Schindler said. Warming increased lake productivity and therefore the development of juvenile sockeye, he said.

However, the staggering abundance created its own problem for Bristol Bay harvesters, who typically supply at least half of the world’s sockeye salmon: a market glut that depressed prices. “It is not clear that many people actually made any profit in Bristol Bay sockeye fisheries last year,” he said.

Meanwhile, salmon of all species — including Bristol Bay sockeye — are getting smaller, Schindler noted. Yukon River chinook salmon, for example, are smaller and are carrying 15% fewer eggs than they did in the past, he said.

Alaska stands out in other ways in this year’s Arctic Report Card descriptions of a North that is becoming warmer, wetter and greener.

While most Arctic tundra regions are gaining more plant coverage, particularly by woody plants that are sprouting and growing farther north as the climate warms, northern Alaska stands out as the place where that trend is extreme. Satellite monitoring over past decades shows that shrubs and other plants are proliferating in the tundra areas of the North Slope, Northwest Alaska and the Seward Peninsula.

Alaska is part of an Arctic-wide gradual increase in overall precipitation, and a notable increase in extreme precipitation events. Measured over the past year, the Arctic region had the sixth-highest level of precipitation since 1950, and Western Alaska last year had its second-wettest winter in a record that stretches back 99 years, the report card said.

Expect more to come, Thoman said at the news conference.

“Extreme precipitation is causing problems around the world. The Arctic is having its share as well,” he said. “We saw examples in 2023. We’re going to see more examples, that’s a certainty, as atmosphere and oceans warm. More water vapor in the air, storms come along — they’re going to tap into that. Extreme precipitation events are our future.”

Indigenous knowledge and community-based science was highlighted in the report in a chapter about the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub, a partnership between communities and UAF scientists.

Since the program started in 2006, community members have made over 10,000 observations to document changes in Arctic Alaska, said chapter co-author Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade. Observations concern sea ice loss, warmer air ocean temperatures, changing wind patterns, increased intensity and frequency of storms and other conditions that affect people’s day-to-day lives, said Glenn-Borade, who is a community liaison for the program.

Despite those rapid changes, Indigenous people of Alaska’s Arctic are still practicing cultural traditions, she said.

“Yes, there are challenges. But we shouldn’t be labeling Indigenous people in the Arctic as victims of climate change. We don’t subscribe to this idea that we are victims of our environment,” Glenn-Borade said. “There’s strength in being proud that we have strived as people to make it this far to be able to continually thrive in our region, living off the land and sea, and we don’t plan on stopping soon.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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