Hatchery production back on Board of Fisheries agenda

KENAI — The Board of Fisheries will once again have to tangle with the issue of hatchery pink salmon production at its upcoming work session Oct. 15-19 in Anchorage.

Two of the agenda change requests, or ACRs, filed for the work session address concerns about hatchery production.

One references an issue from the early 2000s, with concerns about the impact of salmon releases in Southeast Alaska, while the other is a revival of an emergency petition about a Valdez-area hatchery the board considered and voted down in July.

Both are linked to overall concerns about the number of hatchery pink salmon being released into the Gulf of Alaska each year.

The first, from Fairbanks Advisory Committee chair Virgil Umphenour of North Pole, asks the board to reduce overall hatchery production to 75 percent of what it was in 2000. He states in the proposal that the state and hatcheries agreed to cap production in 2000. He referenced the second request, filed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

KRSA’s ACR asks the board to block the release of salmon resulting from an egg take increase at Valdez Fishery Development Association’s Solomon Gulch Hatchery this summer and permanently cap the hatchery’s egg take capacity.

It’s virtually identical to an emergency petition the board previously turned down, saying it didn’t meet the criteria for an emergency.

At the time, the emergency petition was backed by a broad coalition of sportfishing groups from around Southcentral Alaska, objecting to the increase because of the risk of Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon straying into other streams.

They cited data from a Lower Cook Inlet salmon otolith analysis in 2016 and 2017, showing that Prince William Sound hatcher-origin pinks outnumbered local stocks in a number of streams.

Ricky Gease, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the organization chose to refile the request as an ACR because the board said they would take it up later, just not as an emergency petition.

“They said we’d discuss it in a meeting in October,” he said. “Well, this is October, and there wasn’t a place for it on the agenda.”

The board has a similarly stringent set of criteria for accepting ACRs, one of which is a requirement that an effect of a regulation threatens the conservation of a fishery.

In its request, KRSA noted that a number of scientific papers have connected increased pink salmon numbers in the Gulf of Alaska is decreased king and sockeye salmon survival. Increased returns and the risk of straying create a conservation risk, the request notes.

Gease noted the concern for impacts to sockeye and king salmon stocks, which are important to commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries around the state, particularly king salmon on rivers like the Kuskokwim and the Yukon, where the Alaska Native people have long depended on them for winter stores.

The board turned down the petition in July in part because there had been a public process for the egg take increase, through the Regional Planning Teams and the Alaska Department of Fish Game, over several years.

Scientists from the state’s various hatcheries presented a packet of information to the board at the time reviewing a number of the studies connecting pink salmon to decreased survival of sockeye and kings, stating that several of the studies cited have flaws.

The hatchery managers say they are interested in research about the impact of pink salmon releases into the North Pacific — that’s why they’re paying into the 11-year study coordinated by Fish and Game and the Prince William Sound Science Center to examine hatchery-wild salmon interaction.

The question of the impact of pink salmon on the entire North Pacific ecosystem is a complicated one, said Mike Wells, the executive director of the Valdez Fisheries Development Association. He noted ongoing research work through the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission on the same subject.

“The carrying capacity question is a big, big question,” he said. “I think what’s important to recognize is it’s an international question.”

Casey Campbell, the executive director of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, cited data that only about 15 percent of the pink salmon in the North Pacific Ocean are hatchery-origin.

He also pointed to the hatchery-wild study as a major piece of the puzzle to understand the dynamics of pink salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, with some preliminary data expected in December.

Wells said the hatchery managers are watching the board’s decision at the upcoming meeting to determine a future direction for its involvement hatchery management. Until now, the board’s function has been primarily allocative, leaving hatchery management decisions primarily to ADFG.

“I think what’s important with this upcoming meeting in October is that there will be a forum and a discussion,” Wells said. “The public will have an opportunity to come and discuss their concerns with the board. That’s a good venue to come and get concerns out but at the end of the day what has been practiced for 40 years in hatchery production is that it has been centered around science.”

Wells, Campbell and Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin all wrote op-eds for newspapers in various regions of the state in recent months, presenting an argument for hatcheries as supporting local communities and jobs in the seafood industry. Wells said that connects with the research about the effects of hatcheries on wild stocks.

“The hatchery operators around the state recognize that there is a need to educate the public about what we do,” he said.

“That would include the types of salmon species that we raise, for the user groups that we benefit, and about the science work that’s being done.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/03/2018 - 2:00pm

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