By the end of the summer, the salmon farms in Alaska are expected to be on their last legs.
Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the number of salmon farms operating will drop to 4,813 from 7,800 in 2018.
That’s a drop of nearly a quarter of the farms that had been operating in the past year.
The decline is the result of three factors.
First, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced in December that the federal government will no longer be required to maintain salmon farms to ensure a supply of fish for the commercial salmon fishery.
Second, the federal Interior Department announced last month that the Fish and Game Service will no more require fish farms to be open for harvest.
Lastly, the Interior Department said last month it would allow the state of Alaska to start selling fish to the private sector for the first time since the Fish Resource Management Act of 1964, which gave the federal agency the authority to regulate the industry.
“We’ve been through a period of really great fish stocks and great salmon stocks,” said Mike Haines, senior fishery management director at the Alaska Department of Fish and Gaming.
“The decline is really, really disappointing.”
The federal government announced in late December that it was ending the federal subsidy to commercial salmon farmers that supported the commercial fishery, which is critical for maintaining salmon harvests and protecting the economy of the state.
“There’s been a significant increase in the number and size of commercial fish farms, but that’s all a part of the process that you go through in order to sustain salmon and to protect the state’s fish stock,” said Jeff Ragan, executive director of the Alaska Natural Resources Council.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.”
Hainens said the decision to end the subsidy to salmon farms, which provided an estimated $30 million in economic stimulus for the state in the first year after the subsidy ended, was a big blow to the state and its fishermen.
“They were our industry, we had a great fish stock, we were getting a lot of support from the federal, state, and local government,” Hainys said.
“But at the same time, we have been really struggling financially, our budget is really in tatters.
And so it really is an economic setback for the entire state and for our fishers.”
The Fish and Hunting Federation of Alaska, a union representing the state fish and game employees, called the announcement “a complete setback for Alaska’s fishermen, ranchers, and subsistence farmers.”
The agency that oversees the commercial fisheries in the state, the Department of the Interior, has not yet made a decision about whether to renew the subsidy or discontinue it, said Haineth.
But the Fish & Game Service’s decision to phase out the subsidy has already impacted the state economy, Hainese said.
The federal agency has already cut $2.2 million from the budget of the department that handles the commercial fish fishery for fiscal year 2019.
“Our job is to manage our resources, so we can sustain a commercial fishers economy,” said John Koval, director of communications for the Alaska Fish and Games Commission.
“That’s our primary responsibility, and we can’t continue to have a system where we are essentially buying our fish from people who are going to eat it, and it’s not going to make it more healthy for the salmon.”
Alaska’s salmon stocks are the largest in the nation and the country’s fourth largest source of food.
“For Alaska, it is really important to have commercial fisheries because we are a great fishery,” Haineys said, adding that the state has relied on the commercial harvest for nearly a century.
“This is a really critical time for the industry in Alaska.
We have a great commercial fisher in the industry, and the last thing we need is to see that go away.”
Hains, of the Fish Resources Council, said that despite the financial hit to the commercial fishing industry, he believes that commercial salmon farming is a sustainable industry.
The commercial fisherys stock, he said, is “the most abundant food in the world.”