CIAA to move controversial nets back into Tutka Bay Lagoon

The much-debated net pens in the main part of Tutka Bay won’t be there this summer after all.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association will move its pens back into the lagoon near the head of Tutka Bay to imprint and release its pink salmon rather than place them near the mouth of the bay as originally intended. The nonprofit, which operates three salmon hatcheries in the Cook Inlet region, announced the move Friday in response to concerns over the location of its net pens in the bay.

“The net pens are intact and the 2 million pink salmon fry in the pends appear to be unaffected,” the announcement states. “CIAA’s board of directors will be reviewing this operation to determine a coordinated strategy for going forward with net pen placement in future years.”

The net pens are part of the association’s operations at Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, which raises pink salmon on the south side of Kachemak Bay near Homer. Each spring, after raising the pink salmon eggs in incubators, hatchery workers place the fry into the pens and feed them until they’re ready to be released into the ocean.

In the past, the organization has placed the net pens in the lagoon where the rest of its fish are raised in raceways. But in 2013, the organization applied to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to move its pens out into open water near the head of the bay. The agencies granted the permit in January 2017.

The move sparked public ire, largely in Homer. Tutka Bay is a popular recreation spot in Kachemak Bay State Park, with tour boats passing through and lodges along its shores. At a public meeting about the net pens in May 2017, water taxi operators and park users testified against the move for aesthetic reasons. Commercial fishermen testified in favor of the move for the long-term increase in available pink salmon for harvest and stability of the hatchery organization.

Others opposed the move because of concern about hatcheries in Kachemak Bay in general. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association restarted operations at both Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery and the Port Graham Hatchery near Nanwalek in recent years, working to build up the pink salmon broodstocks there to supplement the organization’s other operations at the Trail Lakes Hatchery near Moose Pass. With a target release of 100 million pink salmon, some raised concern that introducing that many organisms into the bay could lead to declines in other species, like crab and shellfish.

The Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Game approved the permits with the plan to move the nets out into the water this season. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association cut the number of salmon planned for the nets down, with the majority still planned for imprinting and release from the lagoon with a minority from the net pens as a trial year. The organization also used a separate otolith mark on the fish planned for the net pens, so when the salmon returned in 2019, there would be a way to tell the net pen fish apart from the lagoon fish.

However, at the beginning of the season, the aquaculture association and Fish and Game agreed that the nets would best be moved to another location near a waterfall at the head of the bay, not the original listed in the permit. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association moved the nets there, but not before members of the public started raising concern about the new location. Last week, the Department of Natural Resources ordered CIAA to move the nets back to the original location in the permit.

Then, Thursday afternoon, Ninilchik Charters called the organization to say the nets were unmoored floating freely. Though the nets were anchored, they appeared to be dragging their anchors in the strong winds.

CIAA contracted a fisherman to go and move the nets. Executive Director Gary Fandrei said his understanding was that the anchors had been affixed along the shorter sides of the nets, as opposed to the longer sides, causing the nets to twist and drag their anchors.

He said the staff was planning to move the nets back into the lagoon by Sunday afternoon or as soon as the tides allow. The move will likely have very little effect on the pink salmon fry currently in the nets, though he said he wasn’t sure which location the salmon imprinting in them will return to.

“I suspect (the lagoon) is where they’ll end up going,” he said. “The idea was we really wanted to have them near a freshwater source … They may go back (to the location near the head of the bay), they may not. I really don’t know.”

Fandrei announced his intention to retire in mid-December 2017, though intends to continue serving as executive director until the organization finds someone to fill his role. He said the board of directors plans to discuss the future of the net pen location. For now, they’ll go back to the lagoon until the salmon are released in the next few weeks.

Homer News editor Michael Armstrong contributed reporting. Reach him at marmstrong@homernews.com. Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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