Swim record: UW fisheries expert puts a number on salmon run

UW fisheries expert puts a number on Bristol Bay's annual sockeye salmon run.

Ray Hilborn watched with satisfaction last summer as the near-record sockeye salmon run he and his UW colleagues had forecasted finally flooded from Bristol Bay up through the lakes and creeks of southwest Alaska. Their prediction? Forty-nine million sockeye—up more than 50 percent from the average of 32 million. When the season started slowly Hilborn got antsy, recalling the 1995 run, in which “there was nothing, nothing, nothing and people started to despair,” says the aquatic and fishery sciences professor. “Then, boom! They showed up [58 million of them]—just a little bit late.”

In his 20-plus years of fieldwork in Bristol Bay, Hilborn has tuned into every number and nuance. An expert in natural resource management and salmon conservation, Hilborn advocates marine stewardship as a way to preserve fish populations and protect fisheries. He eschews notions that most of the world’s fisheries are overfished and that all fish stocks will collapse by 2048. An adviser to governments and global organizations, he urges pairing commercial fishing with government management tools such as halting fishing at certain times.

Hilborn is published, quoted and cited in a range of periodicals from the vaunted scientific journals Nature and Science to the Bristol Bay Times and Seafoodnews.com. He has studied tuna in the South Pacific, explored the recovery of Atlantic cod and analyzed sardines in California.

But back at Bristol Bay, Hilborn’s focus is on this year’s sockeye. In the Wood River lakes system, which connects to Bristol Bay, the UW’s Alaska Salmon Program is the world’s longest-running effort to monitor salmon and their ecology. A suite of field stations allows scientists and students to study factors influencing sockeye salmon and affecting the fishing industry at large. Hilborn’s camp is at “second lake”—a cozy cluster of wooden buildings at the shore of the glassy waters of Lake Nerka. The post—which supports eight people and runs a generator for two short hours a day­—is surrounded by lush, rolling mountains. It’s so remote, only boats or floatplanes can reach it.

“I first visited the Alaska Salmon Program camps in 1995, and I said, ‘All right, I need to find some excuse to come back here,’” says Hilborn. “It’s my favorite, favorite place, and I’ve been back every year since, working on quantitative management and continuing to practice pure science, studying the fundamentals of ecology and evolution and genetics.”


Hilborn never imagined he’d have a career in fisheries. But while he was a student at Grinnell College in Iowa, biologist Karl DeLong caught his interest. “I liked the professor so much, I said, ‘What does he teach next semester?’” says Hilborn. “It was ecology.” Hilborn followed in his mentor’s footsteps to graduate school at UC Berkeley. Then he headed north to learn from his mentor’s mentor at the University of British Columbia. While working on a Ph.D. in zoology, “I fell under the evil influence of a bunch of computer modelers,” he says. “The University of British Columbia and the University of Washington were the two hot spots in ecological modeling, which I found out I was actually pretty good at.”

In 1974, he joined a research think tank in Austria, met his wife Ulrike and found his calling: fish. Returning to British Columbia, he worked as a policy analyst for the government and as adjunct faculty at UBC, building an expertise in fisheries, which led to a job as a senior scientist for a tuna and billfish program in the South Pacific.

When Hilborn started at the UW in 1987, the Alaska Salmon Program was a one-person operation led by fisheries professor Don Rogers. Joining the effort, Hilborn helped expand the program, eventually becoming the lead principal investigator. Today he shares those duties with colleagues Daniel Schindler and Tom Quinn.

Life is quiet at Hilborn’s Lake Nerka camp. People stay up late with the midnight sun and it’s usually 9 a.m. before they start shuffling into the cozy kitchen for breakfast. Then they suit up in chest-high waders and float coats, grab their bear spray and head for the boats

This program has always been the cutting edge of salmon science.

Ray Hilborn

Bound for creeks that can only be reached through boat rides and hikes through the bush, they’re tracking the salmon that swim from the bay up to the lakes, then cluster at the mouths of the creeks—“sometimes a thousand fish, just sitting there in this big red ball,” says Hilborn. Then one salmon makes the push to spawn. The streams are a few feet wide and stretch about 300 yards, sometimes so shallow the salmon have to wriggle over beds of slippery rocks to get to their spawning site.

This is where Hilborn goes to work, tagging as many fish as possible, measuring them and taking a genetic sample that will one day tell him their individual stories. “I’m the world’s most boring guy up at Nerka because I do the same thing every day,” he says with a laugh.

That consistency makes the Alaska Salmon Program so successful. Hilborn is able to look at data he collected up to 20 years ago. And he can reference information collected by other scientists and students as far back as 70 years. The combination of a pristine habitat, an unparalleled volume of data and careful management has made Bristol Bay one of the largest, healthiest and most valuable fisheries in the world.

“This program has always been the cutting edge of salmon science,” says Hilborn. “And it developed a lot of techniques at its inception that are still part of the management now: from the way you age fish to the way you count them.”

Forecasting how many salmon will return to Bristol Bay each year, Hilborn and his team can recommend the number needed to reach spawning grounds (the industry term for this is “escapement”) in order to keep the fishery healthy. This year, the forecast predicted the largest run Bristol Bay had seen in nearly two decades—49 million, which placed escapement at 14 million and harvest at 35 million.

But developing the techniques for forecasting runs and studying management is just part of the program’s success. “One of the greatest things we’ve done for this place is produce students who are trained in the science and the management of salmon,” says Hilborn. “Training the next generation of fishery scientists and managers is such an important part of our future.”

Bristol Bay sets the standard for a well-managed fishery. One of the healthiest salmon populations in the world, “It’s just as big now as it was 500 years ago, and it supports a thriving local industry,” says Hilborn. “It’s a demonstration that if you protect the habitat and if you manage your fisheries well, you can have your fish and eat it too.”