Fish board denies petition on hatcheries

The members of the Board of Fisheries agree that Pacific salmon hatchery impacts on wild salmon stocks are concerning, but they aren’t clear on what to do to address them yet.

At a meeting Monday to consider emergency petitions, the board declined to consider an emergency petition submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and signed by a variety of Southcentral Alaska sportfishing organizations expressing concern about a hatchery operation permit. Specifically, the petition asked the board to intervene in a permit modification procedure for the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation to increase its pink salmon egg take this season by 20 million.

Aquaculture associations operate in various areas of the state, from Ketchikan to Kodiak, raising Pacific salmon to smolt, releasing them into the ocean to grow and harvesting some of them for cost recovery when they return before opening them up to harvest by commercial fishermen. In recent years, they’ve come under increased fire from the public amid concerns about ocean carrying capacity and interaction with wild stocks.

The organizations wrote in their petition that the expansion of Prince William Sound hatchery operations threatens wild stocks in both Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet. A sampling study in 2017 from pink salmon returning to streams across Lower Cook Inlet that don’t normally have pink salmon showed that many of them originated in Prince William Sound hatcheries.

“It is certainly unforeseen and unexpected that release of millions of additional hatchery-produced pink salmon fry into the marine waters of Prince William Sound without a doubt threatens the biological integrity of wild stocks of pink salmon in Lower Cook Inlet and potentially adds to an already critical ocean rearing situation,” the petition states.

The petition requested that the Board of Fisheries put the permit on hold until “adequate consideration” could be given to the impact of hatchery fish on wild salmon stocks. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in collaboration with hatchery organizations, is in the middle of a long-term study on the interaction of hatchery fish with wild fish in Prince William Sound and Southeast, with the study scheduled to conclude in 2023.

Fish and Game responded that the petition did not meet the Board of Fisheries’ standards for an emergency, according to a staff response submitted to the board. The board also has limited authority over hatchery organizations, which are funded partially by a tax on commercial fishermen but are private nonprofit organizations.

“The board has limited regulatory authority over the operations of hatcheries, and the board may not adopt regulations that effectively veto or override a fundamental department policy decision regarding whether to authorize the operation of a particular hatchery or adopt regulations preventing the department from exercising its authority to permit a hatchery operation,” Fish and Game’s response states.

In its meeting Monday, the six Board of Fisheries members present split on whether the petition constituted an emergency 3-3, with a tie leading to a defeat of the vote. Board member Reed Morisky of Fairbanks said he thought it fit the criteria because new data raised concern about hatchery operations and the potential future viability of wild stocks.

“I contend that there’s a high likelihood that the wild stocks won’t be available in the future,” he said.

Board chairman John Jensen said he didn’t think the petition met the emergency criteria and pointed out that the board agreed at its March meeting to regularly discuss hatchery issues at its worksessions in the future in response to public concerns voiced at the Sitka meeting in January. Board member Robert Ruffner agreed, saying he didn’t think the petition qualified as an emergency but that hatchery issues are important enough to merit board examination and discussion, particularly with input from the scientists researching hatchery impacts.

“Now we’re in a position where we recognize that we need to bring this back up and talk about it and better understand it so we can weigh in on the various aspects of hatchery operations,” he said. “…I am pretty concerned about a number of the different things across the state that I see in regards to hatcheries.”

Board member Al Cain said he’d prefer to keep the discussions in regularly scheduled board meetings to keep them as public as possible, but that it is an urgent issue.

“I would just request all gravity and urgency be put into this matter and as much information as we can gather (be presented),” he said. “Probably discussing it at the October meeting is a good idea …This is a difficult one due to all the environmental and wild stock concerns that we have.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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