ADFG launches study on hatchery impacts on wild salmon
Hatchery salmon and their potential impact on wild populations have been a sticking point in ongoing discussions about seafood sustainability, and a multi-year research project undertaken by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is looking at better understanding the issue.
More than 40 scientists, fishermen, and others interested in the science gathered in Anchorage Dec. 12 for a daylong update on the research progress so far.
ADFG’s study, which is being conducted with the Prince William Sound Science Center, the Sitka Science Center and other contractors, is focused on pink and chum salmon in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska.
The Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, has raised questions about the impacts of hatcheries in Alaska during the certification process for Alaska’s salmon, and a contractor working on the MSC assessment attended the meeting, but did not weigh in with comments during the presentations.
The state is no longer a client for MSC certification, and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has developed its own alternative certification, but other fishing organizations have continued to seek the MSC blue label, and in May, the MSC agreed to switch the certification client from the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association to the Alaska Salmon Processors Association.
Although recertification was granted in November 2013, the MSC document specified that Prince William Sound’s salmon fisheries would remain under assessment while research was conducted on hatchery impacts, and a team visited Alaska in early December as part of that process.
Northern Southeast Aquaculture Association General Manager Steve Reifenstuhl said the hatchery research project developed out of questions about the impacts of hatcheries and the policies in place to mitigate concerns. Advocates began the push in 2009, and received a state commitment to the project in 2010.
So far, about one-third of the needed funding has been committed, and has come from the Legislature and the salmon industry.
“It will be a steep hill to climb to attain the balance of the research dollars,” Reifenstuhl said during the meeting.
Straying to wild salmon streams has long been a concern regarding hatchery fish, but the main research on the subject was conducted outside of Alaska, and little is actually known about the impacts here. Elsewhere, some research has shown that hatchery fish are generally less productive in nature than wild fish, and can also displace wild fish.
The team is essentially trying to answer three major questions: what is the genetic structure of pinks and chums, what is the extent and annual variability of straying for those salmon and what is the impact on natural salmon’s productivity caused by straying hatchery fish.
Work on the research project began in 2012. The Anchorage meeting focused on the 2013 and 2014 research programs, with an eye toward allowing the science panel, comprised of state, federal and private scientists, to discuss the research plans for 2015.
The research effort includes ocean and in-stream sampling efforts in Prince William Sound and Southeast.
The PWS ocean sampling project includes an effort to determine the proportion of hatchery and wild pinks and chums entering the Sound at the test fishery, and an estimate of the total run size. The stream project for that region also looks at straying into each of the sampled streams.
The Southeast research is similar, but focuses solely on chum salmon.
In both regions, researchers are also using genetics to try to determine the parentage of new fish. By taking genetic samples from spawning fish, and then the alevin that result, the team thinks it can determine which spawners come from hatchery parents and which come from wild parents. Eventually, that could help determine the reproductive success of each group.
Bill Templin, who works in ADFG’s genetics lab, said the project should help answer many of the questions about hatchery salmon, but that it’s a significant undertaking, and some of the techniques must be developed specifically for the project.
“This is a very ambitious program,” he said. “It’s the first of its kind and the first of its size.”
ASMI, Congress weigh in on certifications
Scientists are not the only ones working on issues surrounding the sustainability of Alaska’s seafood.
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI, is working on revamping its own certification process for seafood.
ASMI opened a 60-day comment period on its Responsible Fisheries Management conformance criteria in early December. All comments are due Feb. 3. The RFM certification has existed for several years, but ASMI is changing the structure and adjusting the program.
Under the new structure, ASMI will be the owner of the certification, and industry groups will seek the certification. The certification is based on United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization guidelines, and there will not be logo or licensing fees. The high cost of the MSC certification was a previous sticking point for Alaska’s fisheries.
According to an update on its website, the Alaska Fisheries Development Association, a nonprofit, will seek certification of Alaska’s salmon fisheries from ASMI. ASMI said that it will identify all fishery certification clients by Dec. 31.
Congress is also weighing in.
Language in the 2015 spending bill for Commerce, Justice and Science prevents the federal government from using third-party, non-governmental certifications of U.S. seafood, and directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue providing information about fisheries sustainability on its own.
According to a press release from her office, Sen. Lisa Murkowski also prevented third-party non-governmental certification in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Department of Defense budgets.
Federal agencies stopped requiring those certifications in 2013, but the language prevents them from resuming the use of those programs.