Board of Fisheries again rejects curtailing hatchery production

  • Alaska Board of Fisheries members John Jensen, left, and Robert Ruffner are seen listening to a presentation about the state's hatchery programs on Oct. 16 during their annual work session in Anchorage. The board voted 6-1 to reject an agenda change request by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that proposed to stop an increase in pink salmon production by the Valdez Fisheries Development Association. (Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC)

For the third time in a year, the Board of Fisheries has shot down a proposal seeking to curtail salmon hatchery production in Prince William Sound.

By a 6-1 vote at its meeting Oct. 16 in Anchorage, the board rejected an agenda change request seeking to reduce pink salmon production by the Valdez Fisheries Development Association.

The request, filed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, sought to prevent the Valdez-area hatchery nonprofit from raising the additional pink salmon eggs it took as part of a production increase this summer and would have capped the hatchery’s egg-take numbers.

KRSA cited concerns about the number of hatchery pink salmon being released in to the North Pacific Ocean every year, referencing a number of scientific reviews and studies about pink salmon diet and abundance in the North Pacific and linking it to potential downturns in the size and abundance of other species of salmon.

None of the papers directly links the number of pink salmon in the ocean to declining populations or size at age for other salmon, but the requesters connected the dots.

The agenda change request, or ACR, was the third attempt to block VFDA’s expansion of its pink salmon production before the Board of Fisheries. The board previously considered two emergency petitions on the same topic, submitted by a group of more than a dozen sportfishing groups, including KRSA. The version submitted as an ACR was submitted by KRSA alone.

In a previous interview, KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease said the group resubmitted the request because there was no place on the agenda to discuss the concern about hatcheries, and the group wanted to see the board have a conversation about the sustainability of hatchery production and the risk to wild stocks.

And they did. The board spent most of the day Oct. 16 discussing the state’s hatchery program and the associated research and remaining questions, ultimately denying the agenda change request but agreeing that the conversation was worth having.

“I think we can all agree this is an important topic to all fishermen in all user groups,” said board member Israel Payton. “We’re all here because of salmon and the protection of salmon. In one of the presentations, basically the intent of the Legislature was for the hatchery program to rehabilitate the depressed salmon fishery. To what end? Where is the limit? … That being said, I think we should take a breath, do some more studies in Lower Cook Inlet.”

The other members of the board largely said they voted against it because they didn’t see it meeting the agenda change request criteria, not that it wasn’t a valid concern. The sole member voting for it was newly-elected board chair Reed Morisky.

Three staff members from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game spent a chunk of the afternoon giving the board members a crash course in the state’s hatcheries and ongoing research. Public concern about the hatcheries, most notably the pink salmon production, has been mounting for the last several years, flaring higher in December 2017 when ADFG presented results from otoliths collected from pink salmon found in streams in the Homer area, finding an unexpectedly large number of Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon.

Sam Rabung, the head of ADFG’s aquaculture section, explained that the hatchery program has repeatedly come under scrutiny since its conception in the mid-1970s. Since the 1990s, hatchery production has been relatively stable in terms of smolt releases.

It’s been about a decade since the Board of Fisheries convened a meeting specifically on hatcheries under the Joint Protocol on Hatcheries, Rabung said, adding that he hopes the members continue to do so in the near future.

“The hatchery program has benefited from this scrutiny, and is one of the largest reasons I think it’s been successful,” he said. “It’s our hope that these meetings can be resumes so that accurate information about the hatchery program can be provided to the board and to the public in a timely manner.”

The hatchery program was conceived in the 1970s in response to depressed fishery stocks and poor commercial harvests. Since then, the state conveyed the majority of its hatcheries to be operated by private nonprofits, or PNP, hatcheries, running operations in areas from southern Southeast north across the Gulf of Alaska out to Kodiak.

The state still operates two sportfish production hatcheries, which are not subject to the same production oversights as the PNP hatcheries but which public statewide stocking plans subject to public review.

The PNP hatcheries’ releases are available to harvest by all user groups, but are largely funded by and harvested by commercial fishermen. During the public discussion portion of the meeting, taking the form a committee-style forum, most of the comments came from commercial fishermen who spoke out in opposition to the agenda change request and against the Board of Fisheries taking an increased role in hatchery production regulation.

Kenneth Jones, a Cordova-area fisherman and Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association board member, told the board to consider the number of commercial fishermen who took time and expense to come to the meetings to defend the hatcheries’ operations.

“This effort by KRSA and company is nothing but a thinly veiled attack on commercial fisheries, and bringing it before the politically-appointed Board of Fisheries three times in the course of twelve months is an abuse of the public process,” he said.

Clem Tillion, a Halibut Cove resident and former legislator, said the hatchery program has operated exactly as the legislators intended it to.

“The hatchery program has been a success,” he said. “Don’t monkey around with something that works.”

As he resumed his seat, the crowd offered significant applause.

Research continues

The longest presentation of the afternoon was from Division of Commercial Fisheries Chief Fisheries Scientist for salmon Bill Templin, who offered a crash course on the science of salmon hatcheries, straying and an update on the long-term hatchery-wild salmon interaction study.

The study, a massive undertaking funded by the hatchery operations and coordinated by ADFG, is expected to last a little more than a decade and answer questions about the genetic composition of pink and chum salmon in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska, to what degree hatchery chums and pinks are straying into wild streams and whether they are impacting wild populations.

It’s a massive study, tracking multiple generations of salmon in a variety of locations. Parts of it are completed, including a genetic baseline for pink salmon along the Gulf of Alaska, which was completed in connection with the longer-term Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification Program.

Templin said the data indicates that pink salmon have a relatively “shallow” genetic structure, varying only slightly from stream to stream, with most of the genetic differences existing between individuals rather than between populations.

“Most of the genetic variation relies on individual to individual differences,” he said. “What this tells us is there’s very shallow genetic variation in pink salmon, not just in Prince William Sound but across the entire range.”

Reviewing the papers submitted with the ACR, he critiqued the scientific reliability of several and said some others were good data sets but lacked context. In connection with the concerns from the proposers about ocean carrying capacity, he said ocean carrying capacity is a massively complicated question with far too many factors for anyone to easily calculate, and is beyond the scope of ADFG to be able to determine.

He did point to the record run sizes in recent years that happened in conjunction with high numbers of hatchery pink salmon present in the North Pacific Ocean.

He made a number of further research recommendations to the board, including developing a more complete research study on hatchery strays and evaluation of hatchery releases.

In response to a question from Payton, he said ADFG has worked on a more complete research project regarding the straying of Prince William Sound pink salmon into Lower Cook Inlet streams and would like to implement it but lack the financial resources to do so.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/25/2018 - 8:26am

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