Hatchery salmon still small portion of Cook Inlet fishery

Though hatcheries are a major part of the commercial fishing industry statewide, they’ve remained a small portion of the harvest in Cook Inlet.

Fish from Alaska’s salmon hatcheries made up a third of the total commercial fishery harvest in 2015, mostly in pink and chum salmon. However, in Cook Inlet, hatchery fish made up less than 2 percent, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The report, which is updated annually, provides a broad picture of the state of Alaska’s 28 producing hatcheries. Since their beginnings in the 1970s, the hatcheries have grown to be a substantial part of the fishing industry and contributed 93 million salmon to the commercial fishery last year, nearly a third of the 264 million total fish, according to the report.

Cook Inlet’s hatcheries carried a total ex-vessel value of approximately $3.2 million in 2015, with approximately $1.7 million coming from sockeye and the remainder coming from pink salmon. However, Cook Inlet has the smallest hatchery value in the state — Prince William Sound led the market with a total of $79.5 million in ex-vessel value, followed by Southeast with $37.5 million and Kodiak with $4.5 million, according to the report.

The commercial fisheries in Cook Inlet harvested 144,000 hatchery-produced salmon in 2015, approximately 2 percent of the total catch. Most of the return was harvested for cost recovery, approximately 2.2 million fish.

One of the reasons for the smaller harvest is the recently reopened Tutka Bay and Port Graham hatcheries, operated by Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. Both are building up their broodstock over time to reach the returns the facilities can handle. In 2015, only enough fish to fulfill broodstock and cost recovery returned to those two stocks, according to the report.

Cook Inlet’s hatcheries mostly produce sockeye salmon, which garner a higher price per pound than pink and chum. Most of the hatcheries rely on pink and chum salmon, which are lower-value fish. However, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association is in the process of diversifying its stock to include both pink salmon and sockeye.

Sockeye are more expensive to raise because they must be retained in freshwater longer, requiring the hatcheries managers to overwinter them, said Mark Stopha, a fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Juneau who wrote the report. They are more expensive to feed and run a higher risk of mortality, possibly because of the longer rearing time. Pink and chum salmon, on the other hand, can hatch in the spring and go directly to salt water, providing a faster return on investment, he said.

The number of hatchery fish harvested in other fisheries is much smaller — the sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries harvested about 275,000 salmon, rainbow trout, arctic char and grayling in 2015.

The hatcheries are managed with the wild stocks as a priority, according to the report. Coded wire tags and thermal marking, which is the process of marking the earbones of hatchery fish to determine their origin and brood year, allow fisheries managers to sample returning fish during the season and estimate the total return for hatchery fish and thus more accurately estimate wild stock escapements.

Straying of hatchery fish into wild fish systems has long been a concern with the programs statewide. There have been straying reports conducted on most systems where hatcheries operate, but not on Cook Inlet. Stopha said the relatively small hatchery operation did not necessitate a straying study.

“I don’t know of any that have been done in Cook Inlet … and maybe that’s because we don’t have any concerns there because of the low level of hatchery production in some of the areas,” Stopha said. “I don’t think it has come up as a concern.”

Fish and Game originally began evaluating all the hatcheries in the state as part of the Marine Stewardship Council certification process in 2012, but eventually reviewed them all, Stopha said. One of the main things he said he’s seen is that the hatcheries do not seem to have been damaging salmon runs.

Many of the hatchery programs have enhanced the already existing stocks rather than shipping eggs in from elsewhere, he said.

“I think the main thing, when I’ve looked at these over 40 years, no one just went in and put in a 100, 200, 300 million egg hatchery and said, ‘We’re just going to do it,’” Stopha said. “In truth, there’s been a lot of bad press about hatcheries over the years, and hatcheries down south have not followed the same protocols we have. 2013 and 2015 were some of the highest returns over the state.”

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

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