Federal approval of project to improve Karluk Lake sockeye runs is slow in coming as the Fish and Wildlife Service takes a cautious look at the proposal.

The Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association has planned for years to spread fertilizer across Karluk Lake.

The fertilizer will be consumed by plankton that will be eaten developing sockeye.

While the fertilization process is relatively simple, getting permission isn’t. Karluk Lake is deep within the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, and Fish and Wildlife — which runs the refuge — must approve before the project begins.

“We are kind of in a holding pattern,” said Tina Fairbanks, KRAA’s operations director.

KRAA began working with Fish and Wildlife in May on a “compatability determination,” a document that says the fertilization project follows the mission of the refuge.

That document was supposed to be finished by mid-August. Now, said Mitchell Ellis, head of Alaska’s refuges, November is the likely date.

“We’re hoping by November that we would have something for the public to look at,” he said. “We had hoped to get it out sooner, but … this issue of applying fertilizer to a large water body, there’s been a lot of prior fertilization done on other water bodies, and we’re looking at the results.”

Lake fertilization has been successful in lakes across the country, but a previous Karluk fertilization effort had mixed results. In addition, recording gaps after the fertilization mean Fish and Wildlife biologists don’t have as much data as they’d like, Ellis said.

“(Fertilization) conjures up totally positive images of the proposal … but we’re talking about the addition of significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous … what are the consequences of that?” Ellis asked.

The Kodiak refuge’s top goals are improving salmon runs and preserving Kodiak’s bear population, Ellis said, but Fish and Wildlife wants to make absolutely sure that fertilization won’t have a side effect, like increasing the number of fish that prey on salmon.

“You’re also running the risk of hitting a tipping point with algae, for instance,” he said. “I think people need to understand it’s more complicated than that.”

If and when Fish and Wildlife approves KRAA’s plan, it still must undergo another round of environmental review.

Ellis said the research being done for the compatability determination will help that second review, and KRAA should still be able to start the fertilization project next year.

The success or failure of the project will not be apparent for several years afterward, as sockeye develop and take advantage of their bigger food source.

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