This story has been updated
FAIRBANKS – More research is needed into the interactions of hatchery and wild fish in Alaska before the Alaska Department of Fish and Game approves the dumping of additional pink salmon fry into Prince William Sound, an advisory committee to state regulators decided here this week.
Virgil Umphenour, the chair of the committee and a former member of the state Board of Fisheries, says it is troubling that a state which has long prided itself on best-in-the-world, scientific management of its fisheries is allowing ever more salmon ranching with little clue as to the impacts on wild fish.
The committee’s Mike Tinker said the group has been working with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which has a fisheries biologist probing the question of salmon interactions at sea. Ricky Gease, the association’s executive director, said Friday afternoon the organization plans to next week file an emergency petition with the Board of Fisheries calling for it to review the latest stocking plans.
He expects the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s largest outdoor organization, and other conservation organizations to sign on to that petition along with the Fairbanks advisory committee and possibly others.
A state planning team on April 18 gave approval to a Valdez hatchery to up its pink salmon production by another 20 to 40 million eggs with no study. The five privately run, non-profit hatcheries in the Sound already take almong 800 million eggs and release hundreds of millions of fry. In 2016, the reported egg take was 740 million with 643 million pink fry subsequently dumped in the ocean, according to a draft petition to the board. (Attached below)
There are obvious impacts, says Nancy Hillstrand of Homer, who has become an activist for wild fish. She last year warned that hatchery produced pink salmon from Prince William Sound are beginning to take over streams in Kachemak Bay and lower Cook Inlet because they can’t properly find their way home to the hatcheries to the south and east.
Some commercial fishermen see no problem with straying hatchery fish. More fish are more fish, they argue. Hillstrand doesn’t share that view.
“They’re just making fish and pumping them out, and they don’t bother looking at any of the science,” she told the Homer Tribune. “What do we want? If we want nothing but pink salmon monoculture in the state of Alaska, great.”
The Fairbanks group contends that such a change in fisheries would not be great; it would be illegal.
“State of Alaska law mandates that hatcheries shall operate without adversely affecting natural stocks of fish,” the committee in its draft petition calling to review plans for increasing the volume of Prince William Sound salmon ranching.
Some new research indicates hatchery pinks might already be out-competing wild king, silver and red salmon in the ocean which could be reducing returns of those fish to their natal spawning streams. The sportfishing association has long been protective of king, silver and red runs around Cook Inlet.
Fairbanks, meanwhile, considers the Copper River with its runs of kings and reds and something akin to home turf. The Chitina Dipnetters Association has its roots in Fairbanks.
The pink salmon hatcheries are of no benefit to commercial, personal-use or sport fishermen in the Inlet or on the Copper River, but the hatcheries – with some help from state subsidies – have built a $50- to $60-million per year business in the Sound.
The popular perception is that those small salmon disperse widely into the ocean, but they don’t. They enter what amounts to an ocean river – the Alaska Coastal Current – and ride it north where they mix with young salmon emerging from Cook Inlet.
The concentration of young salmon in this oceanic river has long been known.
“The strong preference by juvenile salmon to remain over the continental shelf of the Gulf of Alaska as opposed to offshore waters is not fully understood. One of the major oceanographic features along the continental shelf of the GOA is the Alaska Coastal Current (ACC), which is a vigorous counter-clockwise current around the continental shelf and is the main transport of dissolved substances and plankton along the coastal GOA,” federal researchers working in the Gulf observed almost two decades ago. “It is possible that the ACC serves as essential habitat by providing a nurturing area for juvenile salmon.”
The current pushes into the Barren Islands off the mouth of Cook Inlet. “Upwelling of nutrient-rich waters around the Barren Islands leads to high local productivity, which in turn results in high abundance of forage fish species,” scientists studying the area in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill reported in 2002.
They noted the bounty of plankton that nourishes young salmon and the high frequency of salmon in the diets of seabirds that nest in the Barrens and the surrounding islands. They did not examine possible interactions between young, wild fish and the masses of young, hatchery fish now pushed into the area.
Scientists have since suggested that in the competition for food the large numbers of hatchery pink salmon could be besting wild Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon in the quest for survival.
“In addition to the straying issues observed in Lower Cook Inlet,” the Fairbanks group wrote, “recent scientific publications have provided cause for great concern over the biological impacts associated with continued release of very large numbers of pink salmon fry into the North Pacific Ocean.”
“In Alaska, declines in size at age and abundance of Chinook (king) salmon and coho (silver) Salmon and a decrease in age at maturation in Chinook salmon may be related to the alteration of the food web by highly abundant pink salmon and higher mortality during late marine life,” fisheries scientists Gregory Ruggerone and James Irvine reported earlier this month. “For example, length of age‐1.4 Chinook salmon from six Alaskan stocks was negatively correlated with pink Salmon abundance in 1983–2012.”
The negative correlation would indicate the Chinook were competing with the pinks for food and losing. The Ruggerone-Irvine study was published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries – Dynamics, Management and Ecosystem Science.
The study hinted that hatchery fish may in some cases be displacing and replacing wild fish in the North Pacific. It warned that though it might not appear that the small numbers of salmon in the ocean compared to other species could affect the entire food chain, there could be major, localized competition hurting wild fish.
“We hypothesize that the clumped distribution of salmon and their prey, feeding selectivity, variable prey quality, and a requirement for salmon to maintain high foraging efficiency over their life span combine to make only a small portion of the (abundant) prey available to foraging salmon,” the wrote.
In an interview, Ruggerone said, a whole lot more research is needed about “density dependent” interactions, but added there is cause for concern about hatchery fish overwhelming wild fish on the feeding grounds.
Commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet have long complained about so-called “over escapement” in the Kenai River possibly reducing salmon production there because of subsequent competition between fry and smolt in the river.
Irvine studies Canadian salmon and has observed “that sockeye salmon survivals began to decline after 1991 for many stocks because an increasing portion of the juveniles were unable to grow to the size (or possess sufficient energy reserves) required to survive some life history stanza, similar to the critical size hypothesis.”
He suggests competition with pinks and chums might be part of the reason.
In a separate paper published in Marine and Coast Fisheries, he observed that “chum and pink salmon, which constitute the bulk of the salmon in the North Pacific Ocean, appear to have ecological advantages over sockeye salmon during periods of increased competition.”
The only differences between the Ruggerone-Irvine theory and the over-escapement theory is that the competition takes place in rivers within the ocean, the number of young fish involved vastly outnumbers the fish in the Kenai, and the ability of one group of fish – hatchery salmon – to compete is boosted by their unnaturally high numbers.
The boost has been good for some commercial fishermen.
“Prince William Sound fishermen have the highest hatchery fish catches,” the Fairbanks group noted. “In 2017, 45 million salmon returned to the five hatcheries in PWS, accounting for 87 percent of the total salmon harvest. Ninety-three percent of pink salmon were hatchery-origin, and 68 percent of chum salmon were hatchery-origin. In all, PWS hatchery harvest added up to 62 percent of the total with a dockside value of $64 million.”
With an eye to making even more money, the Prince William Sound Regional Planning Team, a group on which Fish and Game is supposed to maintain oversight, gave the Valdez hatchery permission to take even more pink salmon eggs and produce tens of millions more pink fry to dump in the Sound.
The Fairbanks advisory group says the Board of Fish needs to review that decision with an eye toward “biological and allocative impacts.” In Alaska, the Department of Fish and Game manages fisheries on a day-to-day basis, but the Board is the state entity that is supposed to set the standards for how state fisheries are managed.
When the Fairbanks committee petitioned the Board to change agency allocations of king salmon in the Copper River last year, however, Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten rejected the petition saying his agency’s decision to close sport and personal-use dipnet fisheries for kings and give nearly all of the fish to commercial fishermen didn’t meet the state petition standard requiring an “emergency.”
Fairbanks advisory committee members expect a hatchery request might be rejected as well. Cotten is a former purse seiner who made his living catching pinks, and his son is now a commercial purse seiner who stands to benefit from larger return of those fish.
This is a draft of the petition the Kenai River Sporfishing Association plans to submit:
Petition for finding of emergency and scheduling hearing on biological and allocative impacts that will result from recent changes to Prince William Sound Private Non-Profit Hatchery Management Plans adding 20 million pink salmon egg take to existing permitted capacity.
We, the undersigned organizations, strongly recommend the Alaska Board of Fisheries make a finding of emergency and subsequently schedule a time certain to consider management options for fisheries supported by hatchery pink salmon in Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet in response to recent (April 19, 2018) actions taken by the Prince William Sound Regional Planning Team to amend hatchery management plans to allow for an increase in the number of pink salmon eggs taken by 20 million.
In accordance with 5 AAC 96.625 Joint Board Petition Policy, it is the policy of the boards that a petition will be denied and not schedule for hearing unless the problem outlined in the petition justifies a finding of emergency. In accordance with state policy expressed in AS 44.62.270, emergencies will be held to a minimum and are rarely found to exist.
In this section, an emergency is an unforeseen, unexpected event that either threatens a fish or game resource, or an unforeseen, unexpected resource situation where a biologically allowable resource harvest would be precluded by delayed regulatory action and such delay would besignificantly burdensome to the petitioners because the resource would be unavailable in the future.
Factors in support of finding of emergency:
1. Hatchery permits are required for the construction and/or operation of a private non-
profit salmon hatchery in Alaska. Hatchery permits specify the species and number of
salmon that can be incubated at the hatchery, as well as the number released, release
sites, broodstock sources, and other conditions of operation.
2. The Alaska Board of Fisheries has limited authority as it relates to hatcheries. The Board may exercise indirect authority over hatchery production by regulating the harvest of hatchery-released fish in the common use fishery, hatchery brood stock and cost-recovery harvests, and by amending those portions of hatchery permits relating to thesource and number of salmon eggs, hatchery harvests, and the designation of special
harvest areas by the adoption of appropriate regulations. However, Board action that
effectively revokes, or prevents the issuance of, a hatchery permit is probably not
3. The total number of pink salmon eggs that were taken for rearing in PWS hatcheries in
2016 was 740 million. That same year, 643 million pink salmon fry of hatchery-origin
were released into Prince William Sound.
4. Prince William Sound fishermen have the highest hatchery fish catches. In 2017, 45
million salmon returned to the five hatcheries in PWS, accounting for 87 percent of the
total salmon harvest. Ninety-three percent of pink salmon were hatchery-origin, and 68
percent of chum salmon were hatchery-origin. In all, PWS hatchery harvest added up to
62 percent of the total with a dockside value of $64 million.
5. Pink salmon that showed up in streams across Lower Cook Inlet in 2017 weren’t all local stocks — in some streams, up to 70 percent were releases from Prince William Sound hatcheries. Prince William Sound hatchery-marked fish were present in every Lower Cook Inlet stream sampled. In Fritz Creek, 70 percent of the 96-fish sampled were from Prince William Sound hatcheries. In Beluga Slough, 56 percent of the 288-fish sampled were from Prince William Sound.
6. The State of Alaska law mandates that hatcheries shall operate without adversely
affecting natural stocks of fish – 5 AAC 39.222. Policy for management of sustainable
salmon fisheries. (c) (1) (D) effects and interactions of introduced or enhanced salmon
stocks on wild salmon stocks should be assessed; wild salmon stocks and fisheries on
those stocks should be protected from adverse impacts from artificial propagation and
7. In addition to the straying issues observed in Lower Cook Inlet, recent scientific
publications have provided cause for great concern over the biological impacts
associated with continued release of very large numbers of pink salmon fry into the
North Pacific Ocean. “Numbers and Biomass of Natural- and Hatchery-Origin Pink
Salmon, Chum Salmon, and Sockeye Salmon in the North Pacific Ocean, 1925–2015”
Gregory T. Ruggerone and James R. Irvine.
8. It is certainly unforeseen and unexpected that release of millions of additional hatchery-produced pink salmon fry into the marine waters of Prince William Sound without a doubt threatens the biological integrity of wild stocks of pink salmon in Lower Cook Inletand potentially adds to an already critical ocean rearing situation.
9. It is certainly unforeseen and unexpected that fishing patterns in Lower Cook Inlet could be altered in a manner that affects the traditional allocation of the salmon resource without consultation with the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
10. It is certainly unforeseen and unexpected by the public that the Alaska Department of
Fish and Game, the state agency charged with stewardship of the state’s salmon
resource, would agree to an amendment to the Annual Management Plans for Private
Non-Profit Hatcheries in Prince William Sound, providing for a substantial increase in the taking of pink salmon eggs when up to 70 percent of all pink salmon sampled on
spawning streams of Lower Cook Inlet in 2017 were of Prince William Sound hatchery
The relief sought by this Emergency Petition would be to have the Alaska Board of Fisheries formally request that the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game put theincreased authorization for taking of pink salmon eggs by the Private Non-Profit hatcheries in Prince William Sound on PAUSE until adequate consideration can be given to all the issues associated with this action.