Norton Sound residents have reported salmon die-offs in unusually large numbers during the last week.
According to the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, dead pre-spawned pink salmon were found in multiple river systems over the weekend.
The corporation’s Fisheries, Research, and Development Director Wes Jones says the numbers of pink salmon being reported are larger than what’s normally seen in the Norton Sound region, spread out across several communities from east to west.
“There’s been reports all the way from here (Unalakleet) in Eastern Norton Sound all the way over to the Nome area. And it’s a very widespread area,” Jones said. “The big change is that it appears that it is a much bigger event happening in Eastern Norton Sound than what you’re seeing as you get closer to the Nome area.”
One of those reports came from Sophia Katchatag, the community coordinator for the Native village of Shaktoolik. On Tuesday evening, Katchatag took her family up the Shaktoolik River to swim and cool off from the excessive heat. She found a creek with “one area completely filled with dead pinks floating on top of the river.”
Katchatag didn’t pick any of them up, and she doesn’t intend to eat them, either.
Based on Katchatag’s observations, they looked to be healthy fish without signs of disease. She said she’s never seen something like this, with so many pink salmon dying before it’s naturally time for them to spawn out.
There are multiple possible explanations for the salmon die-offs, but Jones says the main drivers are most likely warmer water temperatures and a high concentration of fish. According to Jones, the Shaktoolik River weir counted about one million pinks through the river on Wednesday alone. That amount is almost double the number of pink salmon previously recorded for that date in the Shaktoolik River.
Rick Thoman, a climatologist with University of Alaska Fairbanks, confirmed the water temperatures in the Norton Sound have been above average for days now, with no signs of cooling off.
“More immediately impactful will be water temperatures in rivers are thought to be very high right now, and that could have potential impacts on salmon spawning,” Thoman said. “As water gets warm, it holds less oxygen, and that potentially becomes a problem.”
The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation plans to collect more data on water temperature and dissolved oxygen levels to help confirm this possible cause for the pink salmon die-offs. According to the corporation, this is another example of what could be a larger ecosystem shift in the Norton Sound brought on by warming waters.
Jones, the corporation’s research and development director, says it’s natural to see salmon die-offs, and pink salmon populations crash eventually. But losing this many pink salmon early in the spawning season could be the tipping point.
“The pink numbers are going to go down at some point,” Jones said. “Will this push them down farther? I think where it does happen on specific rivers, this is going to be the trigger that makes the population go down for a while.”
Jones emphasizes that during a time when unusual mortality events and changes are happening in the region, it’s important to be vigilant and report observations to the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation or the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
Alaska has a lot going on right now.
Never miss the important parts with insightful (and entertaining) news from The Signal, the best weekly Alaska news email.
- An email from Alaska's former first lady sheds new light on the actions that drove Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott from office, suggesting he may have invited a woman into his room, newly released emails show.
- A new Alaska group hopes to overhaul the state's oil and gas tax credit system through a ballot initiative called the Fair Share Act.
- Alaska regulators are considering whether the state should continue replenishing a rural telephone and internet service fund or shut it down.
- Hunters said the proposed Ambler Road would be closed to the public, while conservationists said it would hurt caribou and other wildlife needed by area villages.