Hatchery questions

An egg-take is conducted at Kitoi Bay Hatchery on Afognak Island in September, 2018. On Tuesday, the Board of Fish voted down a requested limit on egg-takes for hatcheries across the state.

KODIAK - The Board of Fish voted down two salmon hatchery-related agenda change requests (ACRs), Tuesday, on the second day of a work session in Anchorage. Both ACRs were requested due to concerns over the impacts of hatchery-reared fish on wild stocks and both would have placed limits on egg-takes.

Based on the reports that the board heard from Alaska Department of Fish and Game representatives, there are still no firm answers as to whether hatchery-reared salmon affect wild stock.

The first ACR was submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which requested that the Board of Fish halt the incubation and release of an additional egg-take of 20 million by Valdez Fisheries Development Association. VFDA operates the Solomon Gulch hatchery in Prince William Sound, which took 250 million eggs in 2017.

It is near-identical to an emergency petition submitted by KRSA that the BoF voted down in July of this year.

“The magnitude of releases of hatchery produced pink salmon in Prince William Sound (PWS) poses a threat to wild stocks of salmon in the Gulf of Alaska,” the ACR document states. “As evidence, we cite the very high rates of inter-regional straying of hatchery pink salmon into Lower Cook Inlet, and scientific research studies and agency reports that document the adverse impacts on wild salmon and other wildlife from increased food competition in the North Pacific Ocean …”

In order for an ACR to be considered by the BoF, it must meet one of three criteria. Those are: is there a fishery conservation purpose or reason? Does the ACR correct an error in regulation?

Does the ACR address an effect of a regulation on a fishery that was unforeseen when that regulation was adopted?

KRSA argued that the purpose of its request was fishery conservation. BoF staff and board members, however, remained unconvinced.

“I don’t think it meets any of the criteria,” said John Jensen. “I won’t be supporting it.”

Israel Payton expressed a somewhat more nuanced approach, saying that the issue is important for all fishermen and, therefore, incites a lot of passion. His focus remained on the purpose of the hatchery program, which is to enhance stocks for depressed fisheries.

“It seems to have worked well, but to what end? Where’s the limit?” said Payton. “When do we say ... that we should stop? Is it when we’re catching 51 percent hatchery fish?”

He said he understood those who want the program to stop growing until more information is available. While he noted that he didn’t feel that there was a fishery conservation purpose for the ACR, he did opine that there should be a few years where hatcheries don’t raise their levels of production.

The ACR was ultimately voted down 6-1, with Reed Morisky as the sole dissenting vote.

The second ACR sought to place a statewide limit on the egg-take capacity for private non-profit Hatchery facilities at 75 percent of the level permitted in 2000, which was 1.6 billion eggs.

According to a BoF staff report, there are 25 hatchery facilities across the state that, in 2017, were subject to a 2.5 billion limit on egg-take. It was noted that the actual egg-take in that year was roughly 2.2 billion and that commercial fishermen ended up catching roughly 47 million hatchery-reared salmon with an estimated $331 million in first wholesale value. This was roughly 21 percent of statewide salmon harvest. 194,000 hatchery-reared salmon were caught by sports fishermen and subsistence users.

The ACR was submitted by Virgil Umphenour, a former member of the BoF, who wrote that the request’s purpose was fishery conservation.

“See KRSA ACR,” he wrote in explanation.

Once again, most of the board felt that the request did not meet any of the three criteria.

“I don’t think there’s a fishery conservation purpose or reason in this. I think these fish are providing, without getting into liberations, a very valuable resource for the state,” said Jensen.

While board member Orville Huntington said that he did feel that the ACR had a conservation purpose, he didn’t feel strongly enough to argue the point.

The board voted the ACR down 5-2, with Huntington and Morisky as the dissenting votes.

Prior to voting, the board heard reports from ADF&G salmon fisheries scientist Bill Templin.

Templin went through studies that raise questions over the impact of hatchery-reared fish on wild stocks, but said none are conclusive. There is a large data-gap, he said.

“One of our Russian colleagues likens it to catching a moonbeam in a jar,” he said to a question of whether hatchery-reared salmon are bumping up against the carrying-capacity of the North Pacific Ocean. “There are no simple answers to this.”

While some studies suggest that straying hatchery-reared fish could mingle with wild stocks and negatively affect their genetics, Templin said there is not enough data to support this hypothesis.

“Correlation in the data that you happen to have does not mean correlation in the real world,” he said.

When it came to the question of whether genetic changes negatively affect wild stock sustainability, Templinsaid, “That hasn’t been answered yet.”

He noted the need to establish some specific hypotheses and then conduct studies to answer those questions, rather than just using current information.

He added, “This is not within the capacity of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,” adding that ADF&G has various partners, which might be able to make headway with such a study.

The board also heard from members of the public. While not all of the comments made were in support of the hatchery program, most were – including comments from Kodiakans.

“Our subsistence fish is stocked every year through hatchery fish. It would have a dramatic effect on our community if you adjusted that,” said Denise May, a resident of Port Lions.

She also said the Native Village of Old Harbor has economic development projects planned that involve the participation Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association.

“We would like you to realize that our Native people, our Alutiiq people on Kodiak island, would be dramatically affected by any decisions you guys make,” she said. Other members of the public commented that the hatchery program has been a success and has helped sustain the livelihoods of many fishermen across the state.

“Leave a system that works alone,” said one member of the public, eliciting a round of applause.

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