Bill would authorize individuals to get fish enhancement permits

Individual Alaskans, private companies and nonprofits could jump into the world of incubating and releasing salmon under a bill being discussed in the Legislature.

House Bill 107, sponsored by Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Fairbanks) and Rep. Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) would create a system allowing qualified individuals to apply for a fisheries enhancement permit through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Under the permit, people could take wild salmon eggs deposited in a stream, incubate them and release the hatched fry into the same water from which they were taken for the primary purpose of increasing fish populations.

The proposed permit structure is very similar to existing permits, but it opens up the process to individuals who wouldn’t be using them strictly for education or scientific purposes, Talerico said during a House Resources Committee hearing Wednesday.

“This bill would clean things up by outlining those permit requirements in statute, and for the purposes of rehabilitation,” he said. “… This creates the ability for us to do this as a collaborative effort with the private sector and nonprofits out there, completely under the department’s direction, but having participation from the others out there to actually do this.”

Talerico’s district, which encircles Fairbanks to the north and includes Cantwell, Arctic Village and Tok, includes a number of communities that have traditionally subsistence fished for king salmon along the Tanana and Yukon rivers. In the last decade, fishing has been restricted multiple times because of low king salmon returns on the Yukon.

The goal would be to get private organizations’ money into fish restoration efforts, said Elijah Verhagen, one of Talerico’s staff members, during the committee meeting.

“With the science and education permits, such entities would have to apply and get one of these permits and do it under the premise of science or education, whereas this bill is allowing them to get a permit because they need more fish,” he said. “… The hope of this bill is we want the private sector to collaborate under the oversight of Fish and Game to use their private dollars to boost the fish population.”

Talerico tried to get a similar bill, HB 220, through the Legislature last year, but it received heavy opposition because of concerns about impacts to wild stocks and the potential for invasive species. Opponents labeled it “bucket biology,” referring to the practice of introducing fish to a lake without any consideration of the impact of invasive species on an ecosystem. Improper species introduction has led to the widespread presence of invasive northern pike in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, which prey on salmonids.

Fish and Game had a hand in crafting HB 107, and it is a rigorous application process, Verhagen said. Applicants would have to provide documentation of a need, historical data, current conditions, goals and assessment plans, and would have to report data to Fish and Game, he said. It would still ultimately be up to Fish and Game to decide whether to issue a permit, and each would have to be signed by the commissioner.

“I’ve been working on this all session and I have a pretty good idea of how do this, I think, now, and yet I still would probably be rejected if I turned in an application,” Verhagen said.

Several groups voiced support for the bill, including Tanana Chiefs Conference, a coalition of Alaska Native tribal leaders. The group supported the previous bill that Talerico sponsored and already has a number of fisheries projects around the Interior drainages. HB 107 would provide a permit structure for Tanana Chiefs Conference to do their work without having to apply for multiple permits, said Will Mayo, executive director of tribal government and client services for Tanana Chiefs Conference.

“The existing permits would not work,” he said. “We could not use them for the purpose we wanted.”

Other groups raised concerns about wild stocks. Nancy Hillstrand of Pioneer Alaska Fisheries in Kodiak said she opposed the bill, saying that if fish were not making it up the Yukon in Canada, it was the result of management issues downstream. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has worked to reduce king salmon bycatch in the commercial fishery, and more projects to improve fish passage would help as well, she said. Increasing hatchery contributions could do damage to wild stocks over time, she said.

“It’s very important that (legislators) read some of these scientific papers that show that we do do damage to our wild fish,” she said.

Rep. Justin Parish (D-Juneau) said he was concerned about preserving the genetic diversity present in wild stocks. Hatchery fish could have an advantage over wild stocks in terms of survival, so introducing more incubated fish into an existing wild stock could limit genetic diversity, he said.

Parish also raised concerns about the sustainability of using hatchery practices to supplement wild runs that are being damaged by larger causes like warming oceans, increased predation or commercial fishing bycatch.

“It also seems a little bit like if your house is on fire, it’s like a really cool glass of ice water,” Parish said. “It’s really great in the short term, but if you don’t deal with the fact that your house is on fire, it’s not a long-term solution.”

Fish and Game has a genetic diversity baseline policy for hatchery-supplemented stocks. Talerico acknowledged that maintaining genetic diversity is a legitimate concern.

The committee held the bill at its Wednesday meeting, and another hearing scheduled for Friday was cancelled.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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