A Homer, Alaska area salmon hatchery caught operating without a federal Clean Water Act permit won’t be moving its operations to Kachemak Bay anytime soon.
The private, non-profit Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, a commercial fishermen’s organization, had planned to branch out from hidden Tutka Lagoon to the visible head of Tutka Bay just across Kachemak Bay from the end-of-the road community.
But state officials announced Tuesday the plan was on hold. The action came after attorneys for a nearby lodge asked about the lack of the permit.
In January, the aquaculture association won approval from Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack to put net pens off the mouth of Tutka despite objections from the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, other environmentalists and local residents. Mack grew up in Kenai and has deep ties to Cook Inlet commercial fishermen.
According to the Homer Tribune, he concluded that “concerns raised by those objecting to the project did not meet the criteria for rejecting the permit.”
Some of those concerned were not happy with Mack’s decision and sought legal advice on what they might do to slow the project until a complete environmental review could be done. That led lawyers Karen Schmidt and Peter Van Tuyn of Anchorage to do a little digging into the permit criteria for the hatchery.
They soon discovered the aquaculture association had failed to obtain a federally required Clean Water Act permit. Failure to obtain a such a permit is a pretty big deal, Schmidt said Tuesday.
A really big deal
Three companies that process fish aboard ships off the Alaska coast were in 2014 fined a total of $275,000 for simply failing to properly maintain Clean Water Act paperwork.
One company official at the time complained to Jim Paulin of the Bristol Bay Times that the government was imposing “severe penalties for record-keeping violations rather than for actual illegal pollution.” The companies were grinding seafood waste and dumping it back into the sea.
Cook Inlet aquaculture had no plans to grind and dump seafood waste, but it does want to place net pens holding 100-million, waste-producing pink salmon fry at the head of Tutka Bay. The fish farming pens would be there from mid-March to mid-June each year.
Alaska has a law that bans fish farming – the raising of fish in pens – but the private, non-profit aquaculture associations are allowed to circumvent it if they are salmon “ranching” instead of salmon “farming.” The difference is that farmed salmon are raised until they are big enough to be eaten whereas ranched salmon are raised until they are big enough to go to sea to get even bigger before they are eaten.
Critics of the Tutka Bay operation have raised questions about that implementation of state policy, arguing that pen-raising salmon is pen-raising salmon and that the environmental concerns that go along with pen-raising farmed salmon are similar to those that accompany pen-raising ranched salmon.
Schmidt and Van Tuyn wrote the state a letter in March questioning the Tutka plan and noting the missing clean-water permit. They heard nothing until today when they received a letter jointly signed by Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten and Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Larry Hartig.
Cotten has the ultimate say on hatchery permitting. Hartig oversees the Clean Water Act for the EPA in Alaska.
A long wait
After waiting more than a month for any response from the state, Schmidt said she was a little surprised at the answer she got.
“Thank you for your letter of March 22, 2017, expressing concerns about Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) moving certain net pens from the Tutka Bay Lagoon further into Tutka Bay,” the commissioners wrote. “We write to inform you that we have learned that CIAA has put those plans on hold and decided not to move the net pens this season.”
There was no explanation of how or when CIAA came to make that decision. But the state holds considerable leverage over the aquaculture association. Along with requiring state approval for its operating permits, CIAA is about $12 million in debt to the state’s Fisheries Enhancement Loan Program.
The state foreclosed on a private-non-profit hatchery in the Southeast Alaska community of Kake that managed to get itself almost $14 million in debt to the Department of Commerce program. The state is, however, unlikely to foreclose on CIAA, which doesn’t have much in the way of assets, and is as likely to leave the state holding the bag as Kake’s Gunnuk Creek Hatchery did.
The state recently sold the Kake hatchery and property south of the state capital in Juneau to the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, another commercial fishermen’s group, for the bargain basement price of $400,000. Deputy Commissioner of Commerce Fred Parady said there weren’t any good options. No one else bid on the facility when it was publicly offered, and the hatchery property is entangled with city property and a Kake hydroelectric project.
Noting that NSRAA has been one of the state’s most successful aquaculture operations, Parady said, the state concluded it was a good idea to unload the Kake mess to it. The NSRAA said it has plans to invest about $2.5 million into the Kake facility and believes it can be made operational. NSRAA has been highly successful in producing hatchery salmon.
Cook Inlet aquaculture, on the other hand, has struggled. Of the 27 million salmon produced by Alaska hatcheries in 2016, Cook Inlet was credited with 600,000 or about two percent. Hatcheries in Southeast and Prince William Sound pumped out the bulk of those fish, 25 million or about 91 percent, according to the state’s annual summary.
Cook Inlet aquaculture wants to expand and improve its Tutka Bay operation because Tutka has proven the most effective place to conduct a “cost-recovery” fishery to try to recoup hatchery operating costs and make enough money to drive down debt. It reported cost-recovery revenues of nearly $1.4 million at Tutka in 2014.
That’s good for CIAA, but Homer areas residents aren’t sure how good it is for the environment or other businesses in the bay. Tourism is now big business in Homer, too; and some tourism businesses aren’t happy about sharing the view with an industrial fishing operation.
The state says its willing to listen to their concerns.
“We also remind you that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are hosting a listening session in Homer on May 15th from 6-8 p.m. at the Oceans and Islands Center of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge” to talk about aquaculture plans, Cotten and Hartig said in their letter to Schmidt and Van Tuyn. “This might be another good opportunity for your clients to discuss their concerns directly with these agencies.”
expressing concerns about Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) moving certain net pens from the Tutka Bay Lagoon further into Tutka Bay. We write to inform you that we have learned that CIAA has put those plans on hold and decided not to move the net pens this season. We also remind you that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are hosting a listening session in Homer on May 15th from 6-8pm at the Oceans and Islands Center of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. This might be another good opportunity for your clients to discuss their concerns directly with these agencies.