Fearful that Cook Inlet is increasingly coming under the influence of the big, pink-salmon ranch that is Alaska’s Prince William Sound, nine outdoor groups have banded together to ask the Alaska Board of Fisheries to put the brakes on a plan to expand a Valdez hatchery.
The hatchery not far from the oil terminal for the TransAlaska Pipeline System is part of one of North America’s most successful salmon grow operations. Since the late 1970s, hatcheries have reshaped the ecosystem of the Sound from one that produced an average 3.3 million pinks per year to one that now pumps out more than 30 million salmon in an average year.
“With PWS hatcheries providing a solid supply of pink salmon, processing companies with operations around the state have partnered with companies around the world to create new products,” McDowell Group noted in a 2010 report prepared for the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association. “Pink salmon is now a nutritious ingredient in a wide range of food products, compared to 10 years ago.
“Some of these products are made in Alaska, but most are produced at secondary processing plants in other parts of the world or the lower-48.”
The export of jobs attracted little attention in the state, but the ever-increasing volume of pinks swarming out of the Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska began to draw notice after fisheries biologists warned that hatchery fish could be displacing and replacing wild Alaska salmon.
Three years ago, biologists in the Lower 48 and Canada produced the first of a series of ominous studies suggesting wild sockeye and other salmon were suffering at the expense of hatchery pinks. Unable to compete effectively with artificially boosted populations of pink salmon, sockeye from Southeast Alaska south to Oregon were getting smaller in size and less numerous, concluded researchers Greg Ruggerone from Natural Resource Consultants in Seattle and Brendon Connors, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.
With Cook Inlet sockeye salmon stocks also trending downward, some Alaska fishermen began to wonder if food competition with pink salmon fry swarming north from the Sound into the great mixing zone off the mouth of the Inlet could be a problem.
Meanwhile, returning adult hatchery pinks getting lost on their way back to Sound hatcheries caught the attention of many more as those fish began to turn up in odd places.
Here a humpie; there a humpie
Commonly known a “humpback salmon,” or simply “humpies” for the oversize humps that form that on the backs of spawning males, hatchery pinks spread across Lower Cook Inlet like an invasive species last summer.
“…In some streams, up to 70 percent (of the fish) were releases from Prince William Sound hatcheries. Prince William Sound hatchery-marked fish were present in every LowerCook Inlet stream sampled.,” said the petition for an emergency hearing by the Board filed Thursday by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. “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.”
The Soldotna-based KRSA was joined on the petition application by the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s largest outdoor organization; the Alaska Sportfishing Association; the Chitina Dipnetters Association; the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee; the Kenai River Professional Guide Association; the Southcentral Alaska Dipnetters Association; the Tsui River Coalition and the Alaska Chapter of Safari Club International.
Noticeably absent were Cook Inlet commercial fishing interests with the most to lose if there is any validity to the idea that Sound pinks are playing a role in downsizing Inlet sockeye runs. Setnetter Todd Smith, a former member of the board of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, has been adamant in his belief that hatcheries backed by commercial fishing interests in the Sound couldn’t be harming Inlet salmon returns.
He has suggested that scientific evidence indicating otherwise is “fake news,” and argued the theory that hatchery pinks are overwhelming other species of wild salmon in parts of Alaska isn’t worth discussion until there is “definitive proof.”
The experts tend to take a different view.
“Recent analysis of hatchery programs from around the Pacific have found limited evidence of a large enhancement effect and in many cases identified concerns about negative impacts on wild populations,” Ricardo O. Amoroso from the University of Washington and co-authors wrote in a study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences last year.
The study also warned the straying of hatchery fish and the consequences to both productivity and genetics of those fish competing with wild fish on the spawning grounds warranted a lot more study.
The Kenai petition to the Board of Fisheries pivots off that observation to suggest a state cap on hatchery production is needed until more is known.
Do no harm
The petition argues the Board has a legal obligation to restrain hatchery production if there is any possibility hatchery fish will compromise the production of wild fish.
“The state of Alaska law mandates that hatcheries shall operate without adversely
affecting natural stocks of fish – 5 AAC 39.222,” the petition says. “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 enhancement efforts.”
Alaska banned fish farming decades ago. It did not, however, ban hatcheries. It decided the thing to do was to let private, non-profit businesses – most of them run by commercial fishing interests – incubate eggs, grow little fish, and then dump them in the ocean by the hundreds of million with the hope lots of big fish would come back.
Statewide, Alaska is now dumping about a billion hungry, little salmon in the ocean each year. The specifics of what they do to the nearshore marine food chain are unclear.
The state has never studied the interactions of pink salmon fry from the Sound riding north on the Alaska Coastal Current to mix with sockeye, coho, Chinook and other fry emerging from the Inlet to join them in the ecologically rich, northeast corner of the Gulf of Alaska.
But as far back as 1996, Ken Tarbox, a respected and now-retired commercial fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the Kenai Peninsula was warning “hatcheries [in Prince William Sound are a major contributor to wild stock loss.”
Biologist Bill Smoker, an advocate for hatcheries, countered that there wasn’t enough evidence on which to base such a conclusion. Some scientists argue that is still true.
As is often the case, the science is not black and white. The Kenai sport group argues that is exactly the reason the Board should stay a plan to increase production by another 20 million eggs at a hatchery run by the Valdez Fisheries Development Association.
The egg take is small compared to what is already underway in the Sound.
Five private, nonprofit hatcheries take about 750 million eggs per year and release almost 650 million fry. An increase of two and a half percent in the egg take is tiny, but the sport fishing and outdoor organizations say it is time to set a precedent for better state oversight of private hatchery operations.
The increased egg take was approved by a Regional Planning Team organized by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but the team is split equally between Fish and Game employees and private, nonprofit hatchery employees.
The sport fish groups think the team leaned too heavily toward hatchery interests.
“…Release of additional hatchery-produced pink salmon fry into the marine
waters of PWS without a doubt threatens the biological integrity of wild stocks of pink salmon in Lower Cook Inlet, potentially adds to an already critical ocean-rearing situation and likely alters fishing patterns in the inlet in a manner that affects the traditional allocation of the salmon resource without consultation with the Alaska Board of Fisheries,” the Kenai sport fishing group said in a printed statement.
The board is to meet Monday, May 17 be teleconference.
Correction: An early version of this story said Todd Smith was a member of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association. Smith said he is no longer a member of the organization.