KODIAK — Salmon that begin their lives in Alaska hatcheries often save the day for thousands of fishermen when returns of wild stocks are a bust. This year was a prime example, when pinks and chums that originated in hatcheries made up for record shortfalls for fishing towns in the Gulf of Alaska.

“This year Kodiak hatchery fish added up to more than $6 million for fishermen, and also for sport fish, subsistence and personal use fisheries,” Tina Fairbanks, director of the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, said in testimony to the Kodiak Island Borough after one of the Island’s poorest salmon seasons.

But Alaska’s hatchery program, which has operated since the early 1970s, is under assault by critics who claim the fish are jeopardizing survival of wild stocks.

A Kenai sportfishing group said in statements to the state Board of Fisheries that “massive releases of pinks from Prince William Sound hatcheries threaten wild sockeye and Chinook salmon” bound for their region. An individual from Fairbanks is calling for a decreased cap on how many pink salmon some hatcheries are allowed to release to the ocean each year.

Currently, 29 salmon hatcheries operate in Alaska, producing primarily chums and pinks. Twenty five are operated by private nonprofit corporations funded by the sale of a portion of the salmon returns. Two sport fish hatcheries are operated by the state at Fairbanks and Anchorage, one research hatchery is run by NOAA Fisheries, and one is operated by the Metlakatla Indian Community.

Alaska hatcheries don’t grow fish to adulthood, like fish farms. They can be likened more to salmon maternity wards, where fertilized eggs from local stocks are incubated until they become big enough to be let out into the world.

Pink and chum salmon can be released from fresh to salt water soon after hatching. Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon fry usually spend a year or more in fresh water before they can tolerate a transition to the sea. The fish imprint on their release sites and return as adults.

Prince William Sound produces most of the state’s hatchery fish, followed by Southeast, Kodiak and Cook Inlet. Combined, they released a total of roughly 1.6 billion juvenile salmon in 2017.

In terms of catch, a hatchery harvest last year of 47 million fish accounted for 21 percent of the statewide salmon harvest, the lowest percentage since 1995, and due largely to the third largest wild salmon catch in Alaska history.

The state Board of Fisheries will consider proposals by hatchery critics at a meeting on October 15-16 in Anchorage. An open public meeting is scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 16.

United Fishermen of Alaska is offering an easy hatchery comment form that can be submitted to the Board of Fisheries by the October 3 deadline.

Outwitting whales

Alaska longliners are testing underwater microphones to prevent sperm whales from stripping pricey sablefish (black cod) from their hooks. It’s rampant piracy that fishermen call “getting whaled,” and especially painful when the fish fetches up to $9 a pound at the docks.

“When the whales are depredating on a set they take between 25 and 30 percent of the fish that come up. That’s an average. If there’s multiple whales, they can take a lot more than that,” said Dan Falvey, a longtime fisherman and spokesman for the Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

Whale depredation increased after the quota share program began in 1995 when more boats began fishing during an extended eight month fishery. Fishery managers estimate the sperm whales now take between five and ten percent of sablefish from hook and line gear in the Gulf of Alaska. (Fishermen claim it’s much more.)

In 2003, ALFA partnered with researchers who formed the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Network (SEASWAP) to find a whale deterrent. Falvey said since then they’ve learned some key things.

“Whales are out there naturally foraging and if a boat stays far enough away, most of them will continue feeding and not come over to the boat. Secondly, if boats shift in and out of gear, it’s the cavitation of the propeller that calls the whales over,” Falvey said.

The team concluded that a way to minimize fish losses is to avoid areas where there are whales.

“If you can find a spot on the grounds that’s 8-10 miles away from whales, you have a good chance of setting your gear and knowing that you might not have depredation problems,” Falvey said.

In 2016 the avoidance team tested an array of two $300 hydrophones that can be towed at 50 fathoms and display stereoscopic underwater acoustic data on a boat’s computer screen.

“The trick was to take these towed hydrophones that work great on research vessels and make them adaptable so the information can be shared among fishing boats, and to make the computer display fishermen- friendly enough so they can interpret what it’s saying. Another challenge was how to share the information to a satellite modem in real time to a wide group of fishermen who are reporting where there are and aren’t whales,” Falvey explained.

In September ALFA received a $200,000 federal grant to finetune the array to fishing boats and customize software that can broadcast whale alerts to the fleet.

“Once we get the system dialed in and plugging away on different boats we can share it more broadly,” Falvey said.

To prevent getting whaled, some fishermen have switched from hook and line gear to pots, but Falvey said that’s not practical for many vessels.

“That gear is too big and heavy for many of the smaller longline boats to switch over to and they don’t have the hydraulic power needed to pull it off the bottom,” Falvey explained. “A second issue is that it can cost between $50,000 to $100,000 to retool a vessel to put out pots along with the hydraulics. So that’s quite a barrier.”

Got fish questions?

Seafood industry related questions are being solicited for the October 22 governor candidates’ debate in Kodiak. Questions can cover a wide range of topics beyond fishing: trade, transportation, infrastructure, marketing, management, climate change, etc.

The 7-9pm debate will be moderated by KTVA’s Rhonda McBride and broadcast statewide via the Alaska Public Radio Network.

“We really want to hear their visions for this economic engine that is the life blood of our coastal communities. Fishing is Alaska’s oldest and most culturally important industry and listeners across the state are excited to hear the candidates’ ideas,” said Frank Schiro, director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, host of the event.

Since 1991, every major candidate for Alaska governor and U.S. Congress has come to Kodiak to “talk fish.” Send questions to frank.schiro@kodiak.org or call 907-486-5557.

Seafood month!

Governor Walker has proclaimed October as Alaska Seafood Month to “honor the state’s fisheries, as well as the hardworking men and women who help bring Alaska’s seafood to market.” The recognition mirrors the national honor, which was decreed by Congress 30 years ago. Alaska deserves special merit during Seafood Month, as it produces 60% of our nation’s wild caught seafood – more than all the other states combined.

Laine Welch has been writing the Fish Factor column since 1991. It appears weekly in 20 papers and websites in Alaska and nationally.

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