Fish board takes on hatchery issues

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the board of fisheries did not form a formal committe on hatcheries but rather agreed to dedicate time to them at upcoming meetings.

After a number of people voiced concerns about the state’s salmon hatcheries, the Board of Fisheries has decided to take time to learn more about them.

The Board of Fisheries voted Friday to place hatchery reports on upcoming agendas. A number of people voiced concerns about hatchery releases at the recent Southeast regional meeting and Sadie Cove resident Nancy Hillstrand submitted an emergency petition to the board for its statewide meeting in Anchorage.

In the petition, she raised concerns about recent data showing that significant numbers of hatchery fish from Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s pink salmon hatcheries in Port Graham and Tutka Bay Lagoon as well as pink salmon from Prince William Sound were straying into Lower Cook Inlet streams. She asked the board to limit the total number of hatchery fish released regionally each year and to convene a board of experts and citizens to examine how hatchery fish pose a risk to wild salmon populations.

A longtime critic of hatchery operations in Kachemak Bay, Hillstrand said the introduction of so many salmon poses a threat to the ocean ecosystem and stream systems where they return because the pink salmon are predators.

“To openly debate in a healthy manner that leads to comprehensive constructive answers consistent with the law is sorely needed,” she wrote in her petition. “Experimenting with our ecosystem without the most up to date science is foolhardy. Denial must cease being tolerated.”

Though the board didn’t directly take up any of her proposals, the members agreed to specifically consider hatchery issues each year. They will have it on the agenda each October and March, following the cycle of the fall worksessions and spring meetings.

Board member Reed Morisky, who drafted the proposal for a formal committee on hatcheries, said he wanted to provide a place for the public to voice concerns and give feedback. The board did not formally vote to establish a committee in the end, though.

“It may not end up as anything, I would just like to provide a forum for the public to express their opinions,” he said. “…I believe the board should be doing something like that. There’s no legislation at present that I know of regarding hatcheries, there’s no proposals, but we do have several folks in varied industries who are requesting this.”

Board member John Jensen said he had learned a fair number of things about hatcheries even since the issue came up at the Sitka meeting and wanted the committee to serve as a conduit to keep the board apprised of ongoing issues. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Charlie Swanton suggested having the baord focus on the issues of the hatchery in the region the board is meeting about, rotating between areas on a three-year basis.

Since the 1970s, hatcheries have been supplementing the wild runs of salmon by collecting eggs, raising them to the smolt stage, imprinting them on certain streams and then releasing them. Originally operated by the state, most today are operated by private nonprofits like Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation. They are partly funded by a 2 percent tax on commercial fishermen, who benefit by catching the fish they release, known as the common property harvest. The hatcheries harvest part of the returns themselves to recoup costs, known as cost recovery harvest.

Hatchery salmon make up about a third of the total commercial fishery harvest in Alaska, with the largest catches composed of Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon and Southeast Alaska hatchery chum salmon, said Bill Templin, the chief salmon fisheries scientist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in a presentation to the Board of Fisheries on March 6.

Salmon naturally stray, so with so many being released from hatcheries, Fish and Game expects there to be some straying and interaction between hatchery and wild stocks, he said.

“Although straying of hatchery origin fish is known in both regions, it is unknown whether these strays have impacts on the fitness of wild salmon,” he said.

The state and two regional science centers are in the middle of a long-term study documenting the interactions between hatchery salmon and wild salmon in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska. They expect to finish the study in 2023, he said.

Meanwhile, a number of other data projects are going on, too. Fish and Game is in the fourth year of gathering data about hatchery salmon straying in Lower Cook Inlet after Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association reopened Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery and Port Graham Hatchery. The data from 2017 showed a variety of different straying rates, with five of 16 streams surveyed in Lower Cook Inlet having more hatchery than wild pink salmon in them.

Fish and Game’s written response to Hillstrand’s petition notes that the board may have limited authority to regulate hatcheries specifically, per previous policies that block the board from adopting regulations that effectively stop Fish and Game from permitting hatcheries. The petition raises questions about a number of issues the department is actively researching, the response states.

“Ms. Hillstrand raised a number of concerns in her petition, many of which are currently the subject of active research while others are criteria considered in the department’s hatchery permit application review process. It is likely that some of Ms. Hillstrand’s desired outcomes lie outside of board authority,” the response states.

Hillstrand said one of her goals was to get Fish and Game to consider hatchery management from a broader ecological view rather than its current regional management.

“I’m hoping that Fish and Game can step up to the plate and learn ecosystem management,” she said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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