In this September 2017 photo, pink salmon swim up a drainage ditch at Beluga Slough in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

In this September 2017 photo, pink salmon swim up a drainage ditch at Beluga Slough in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Data shows Prince William Sound pink salmon in Homer streams

The wash of pink salmon that showed up in streams across Lower Cook Inlet this year weren’t all local stocks — in some streams, up to 70 percent were born in Prince William Sound hatcheries.

The commercial pink salmon harvest in Lower Cook Inlet wasn’t record-breaking this year, especially as compared to previous big pink years — commercial fishermen harvested about 6.4 million pinks in 2015 and about 2.1 million in 2013, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data — but residents saw a large number of pink salmon making their way up into streams around Kachemak Bay where they hadn’t been seen before. That sparked a question of whether more pinks from Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s pink salmon operations at Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery and Port Graham Bay were leading to salmon straying.

Fish and Game biologists have been sampling otoliths, or fish ear bones, from salmon running into various streams around Homer for the last four years. The 2017 data, released Dec. 1, showed that fish from the hatcheries were straying, but typically not far, according to a memo from area management biologist Glenn Hollowell and research biologist Ted Otis.

“Similar to the previous three years, pink salmon from Tutka and Port Graham Bay hatcheries were found to have spawned in 11 of the 16 Lower Cook Inlet streams surveyed,” the memo states. “Port Graham Hatchery marks were found in samples at low levels (1%) in three streams. Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery marks were found in 10 of the 16 streams at widely varying proportions (15–87%) with highest proportions generally found closes to release sites.”

Prince William Sound hatchery-marked fish, though, were present in every stream sampled. In Fritz Creek, 69.8 percent of the 96 fish sampled were from Prince William Sound hatcheries. In Beluga Slough, 56.3 percent of the 288 fish sampled were from Prince William Sound, according to data attached to the memo.

At a Regional Planning Team meeting held at Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s headquarters Thursday, the otolith sampling study came up as a topic of concern for the public. The Regional Planning Team, a stakeholder group coordinated by the state to advise on hatchery permit issues, includes fishermen, hatchery representatives and regional Fish and Game officials. Nancy Hillstrand, a Sadie Cove resident, said at the meeting that she was very concerned about the straying issue. She asked that Fish and Game regulators prioritize wild fish health over hatchery production.

“We have portfolio stocks that are being invaded and desecrated down in Lower Cook Inlet by Prince William Sound fish,” she said. “This needs to be fixed and stopped. It means we’re raising too many fish.”

Otis, who attended the meeting Thursday, said Fish and Game researchers were concerned too and were gathering data to determine a future course of action. This winter, the researchers plan to work with Fish and Game’s genetics department on the problem and with the public, he said.

“Nobody’s got their heads in the sand — everybody is trying to look into this,” he said.

Sam Rabung, the section chief in Fish and Game’s Aquaculture Section and a member of the Regional Planning Team, said at the meeting the presence of Prince William Sound hatchery fish in the Homer streams is likely not new. Salmon naturally stray from their home streams as a survival tactic, so it’s likely that straying has been going on from the Prince William Sound hatcheries since their inception in the 1970s, he said.

“We all know that salmon stray, and presumably these Prince William Sound pinks that we’re finding in Lower Cook Inlet didn’t just start now,” he said.

Fish and Game is currently in the sixth year of a long-range study on the impacts of hatchery salmon straying, focusing largely on Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska. The study began in 2011 and is expected to continue through 2023, though Rabung said the researchers might like to extend it further to capture another salmon life cycle in their data.

“The main driver is we understand that salmon stray, but we don’t know what that means in terms of fitness, and that’s why we’re following the generations … so we can see if there is an actual effect on fitness through a hatchery-produced salmon straying and spawning back in the wild with its wild cohorts,” he said.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has recently reopened operations at the two Lower Cook Inlet hatcheries for pink salmon. In the course of building up their brood stock at both facilities, the operations have sparked controversy in Homer, particularly the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. Tutka Bay is within the borders of Kachemak Bay State Park, a wilderness park that attracts hikers, boat tours and guests at wilderness lodges. At a hearing in May regarding a permit for Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association to move its net pens out into Tutka Bay, dozens of Kachemak Bay-area residents turned out to protest the operations, saying they were concerned about the introduction of millions of hatchery pink salmon damaging the marine ecology of the bay.

Ultimately, CIAA received its permit, but plans to scale back the number of fry released from the net pens in the open bay versus in the lagoon. At the planning team meeting, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association Board of Directors President Brent Johnson said they scaled back the number of fry as a calculated risk because they’ve never had the net pens out in the open bay before. They also plan to put a different otolith mark on the fish released from the bay to help determine their survival rate, he said.

Tutka Bay Hatchery ran into a number of snags this year; early in the year, the fry line between the hatchery and the net pens, where the salmon are imprinted, was frozen and the staff had to thaw it out before the salmon could be transferred. In the middle of the egg-take season, a fire consumed one of the sheds on site, and in September, a flood in Tutka Creek made collecting salmon difficult, though the weir the staff use wasn’t lost, said Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association Executive Director Gary Fandrei.

On top of that, egg survival has been “disappointing,” he said — between 50 and 60 percent survive, in part due to high sediment levels in the water available at the hatchery. The organization is looking into ways to solve the siltation problem, has installed new fire equipment after the shed burned down and is working with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on methods to sell the fish carcasses from egg-takes to processors rather than having to dispose of them in the deep waters of Tutka Bay, Fandrei said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at

More in News

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the Alaska House of Representatives on Saturday rejected the budget bill passed by the Senate earlier in the week. The bill will now go to a bicameral committee for negotiations, but the end of the legislative session is Wednesday.
House votes down Senate’s budget as end of session nears

State budget now goes to negotiating committee

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Candidate for Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives Tara Sweeney, a Republican, was in Juneau on Monday and sat down with the Empire for an interview. Sweeney said the three main pillars of her campaign are the economy, jobs and healthy communities.
Sweeney cites experience in run for Congress

GOP candidate touts her history of government-related work

One tree stands in front of the Kenai Post Office on Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai taking down hazard beetle trees

The city hopes to leverage grant funds for most of the work

Former Alaska governor and current congressional hopeful Sarah Palin speaks with attendees at a meet-and-greet event outside of Ginger’s Restaurant on Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Palin brings congressional bid to Soldotna

The former governor took time Saturday to sign autographs and take pictures with attendees

In this October 2019 photo, Zac Watt, beertender for Forbidden Peak Brewery, pours a beer during the grand opening for the Auke Bay business in October 2019. On Sunday, the Alaska House of Representatives OK’d a major update to the state’s alcohol laws. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Graphic by Ashlyn O'Hara
Borough, school district finalizing $65M bond package

Efforts to fund maintenance and repairs at school district facilities have been years in the making

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the House Majority Coalition spent most of Friday, May 13, 2022, in caucus meetings at the Alaska State Capitol, discussing how to proceed with a large budget bill some have called irresponsible. With a thin majority in the House of Representatives, there’s a possibility the budget could pass.
State budget work stretches into weekend

Sessions have been delayed and canceled since Wednesday

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Alaskans for Better Government members La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson and ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake embrace on the floor of the Alaska State Senate following the passage of House Bill 123, a bill to formally recognize the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes.
Tribal recognition bill clears Senate, nears finish line

Senators say recognition of tribes was overdue

The Alaska Division of Forestry’s White Mountain crew responds to a fire burning near Milepost 46.5 of the Sterling Highway on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, near Cooper Landing, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Cooper Landing Emergency Services)
Officials encourage residents to firewise homes

The central peninsula has already had its first reported fires of the season

Most Read