Runaway net pens

net pens

Cook Inlet Aquaculture floating net pens in Port Graham/CIAA photo

Pens loaded with immature salmon tore loose from their moorings in Kachemak Bay on Thursday, but the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) says Alaska dodged the Great Salmon Spill that rocked the state of Washington late last summer.

CIAA executive director Gary Fandrei said none of the 2 million baby fish escaped, but there were those skeptical of that claim given one report the nets ran aground.

“I don’t believe anything they say,” said Nancy Hillstrand, a resident of Sadie Cove on the south side of the bay near where the pens are now anchored.

In a public statement, CIAA described the pens as “intact,” and reported it was a moving them back into the shelter of Tutka Lagoon while “considering where to move the net pens due to compliance issues with permitting. Although CIAA placed the net pens where they believed the pens were supposed to go, it was determined by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources that the net pens needed to be moved.”

Kachemak Bay State Park officials discovered that CIAA pens were outside the area where a state permit stipulated they were to be anchored. The misplaced net pens were the subject of considerable discussion at a meeting in Homer Wednesday night, Hillstrand said, and some Kachemak Bay residents were upset CIAA employees apparently don’t know how to use a GPS, a now common and reliable navigation device.

A commercial fish processor and the widow of a commercial fisherman, Hillstrand has become a critic of massive, privately run, commercial-fishermen-controlled hatcheries in the 49th state. The hatcheries, she said, operate largely free of state oversight.

Bert Lewis, the regional commercial fisheries supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said Friday he wasn’t sure who – if anyone – had the responsibility and authority to investigate the case of the runaway pens to see what happened.

He also didn’t know if the pens spilled any fish, but added that “I don’t think there would be a whole lot of concern about it.”

Cook Inlet Aquaculture raises young, native, Cook Inlet pink salmon for release into the ocean. Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s Cypress Island farm in Washington state was raising Atlantic salmon for sale in fish markets.

When its pens collapsed in August and more than 250,000 adult-size Atlantics escaped, the fish caused a panic in Puget Sound. 

National Public Radio called it a “an environmental nightmare.”  Officials of local Indian tribes said they feared the non-native salmon could spread disease and weaken Pacific salmon stocks by cross-breeding with them.


Atlantic salmon farmed along the North American West Coast, mainly in British Columbia, have become a fisheries bogeyman despite a long history of failed attempts to deliberately introduce Atlantic salmon to the Pacific.

“Between 1905 and 1934, the government of British Columbia (Canada) released 7.5 million juvenile Atlantic salmon into local waters, primarily on the east coast of Vancouver Island and the lower Fraser River,” scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  (NOAA) concluded in 2002. “These releases were not successful in establishing Atlantic salmon populations in the province, although some natural reproduction may have occurred in the Cowichan River, as specimens thought to have resulted from the planting of Atlantic salmon were taken until May 1926.

“In addition to the total failure of fisheries managers to establish populations of anadromous Atlantic salmon outside their native range, it appears that it is extremely difficult to reintroduce Atlantic salmon to their native rivers in North America. In the last 100 years, Atlantic salmon populations in New England have declined precipitously, despite widespread introductions of locally derived hatchery fish, primarily from the Penobscot River, a stock now used in net-pen farms in Puget Sound. Due to continued declines in abundance, Atlantic salmon in Maine have recently been listed as an endangered species under the ESA.”

Still, a possibility exists the non-native salmon could establish themselves which raises fears among advocate for wild, Pacific salmon. Those fears caused Washington state to order the farming of non-native species of fish phased out by 2025. 

Similar fears helped push the state of Alaska to ban fish farming in 1990, but the bigger reason was rooted in an effort to protect salmon markets for those catching salmon commercially in the state. That effort was a massive failure.

In 1990, the global production of farmed salmon topped the wild, global catch of Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon combined. By 1991, the farmed catch exceeded the catch of all Alaska wild salmon. By 1992, farmed salmon owned a third of the world salmon market.

Today, farms produce 70 percent of the salmon eaten around the globe, and the farms are continuing to expand.

The latest move is toward onshore facilities where farmed salmon can be raised in safely filtered water and freed from accusations they are a threat to wild fish.

Farmed versus ranched

Alaska’s answer to the rise of the farmers has been to ranch the sea.

Ranching, however, underlines some of the problems raised by the escape of Cooke’s Atlantic salmon, most notably disease and food competition. Hatcheries must be closely monitored to protect against the former, and the latter is unavoidable.

Over the course of the last 25 years, “hatchery salmon represented approximately 40% of the total biomass of adult and immature salmon in the ocean,” scientists Greg Ruggerone and James Irvine wrote in a peer-reviewed study publish in April in “Marine and Coastal Fisheries – Dynamics, Management and Ecosystem Science. “Density‐dependent effects are apparent, and carrying capacity may have been reached in recent decades.”

Hillstrand pointed to one of the density-dependent effects in 2015.

“All of the fish were up to a pound less in weight,” she said.”That’s a $40 million loss to wild-salmon fishermen in Alaska. That’s a $3 million loss to UCI (upper Cook Inlet commercial) fishermen.”

The response of some Alaska commercial fishermen has been to push for ever greater hatchery expansion though Alaska hatcheries are already dumping nearly 1 billion young fish per year in the ocean.

Some of the commercial interests don’t have much choice, Hillstrand admitted. Cook Inlet Aquaculture has borrowed heavily from the state and is now walking a financial tightrope. It started raising young fish in net pens in Kachemak Bay to try to increase returns and with that revenues.

“This is a cost recovery hatchery to try to bail Cook Inlet Aquaculture out,” Hillstrand said. “It is their last hope. It’s all a gamble.”

She doesn’t believe it will work, arguing “they’d have to harvest 10 million pinks a year to get out of this.”blurb1

Maximized production

How many more pinks they will be allowed to produce is an unknown. The Valdez Fisheries Development Association was recently given a green light to up its production by 20 million pink eggs per year.

When the Kenai River Sportfishing Association asked the Board of Fisheries to halt the increase pending a review of those “density dependent effects,” the organization was rebuffed by fish-and-game officials.

“The board may not adopt regulations that effectively veto or override a fundamental department policy decision regarding whether to authorize the operation of a particular hatchery or adopt regulations preventing the department from exercising its authority to permit a hatchery operation,” the state agency concluded. 

The final authority on how hatcheries operate in Alaska, according to that reading of the law, rests with the commissioner of Fish and Game.  Sam Cotten, the current commissioner, is the father of two purse seiners – Sam T. and Augustus – who make their livings catching pink salmon in Lower Cook Inlet, which includes Kachemak Bay.

Commissioner Sam himself is a former member of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. Despite the obvious conflicts, he has remained active in hatchery issues in Cook Inlet.

Hillstrand said there’s a fishy smell to the way the whole business operates. But many in Alaska see hatcheries as a panacea despite some inherent problems. It’s human nature to believe that homo sapiens can do better what nature does naturally. Sometimes the thought trumps the reality of a cost-benefit analysis:

Wild fish cost nothing to raise. Hatcheries costs millions of dollars per year.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture faced operational costs of $5.4 million last year, according to its annual report.  CIAA hoped to catch $2.1 million worth of salmon in special, hatchery-only “cost-recovery fisheries” to add to what it collects from commercial fishermen in the form of a 2 percent assessment on catches.

The aquaculture association, however, caught only about $900,000 worth of salmon.

The big catch – 110,000 Tutka pinks – was worth a mere $86,260, according to the annual report; 24,000 sockeye salmon caught in Resurrection Bay, on the other hand, brought in almost $427,000, the biggest chunk of the revenue.

Ruggerone and other scientists have been warning that the ever increasing numbers of fast-growing pinks in the ocean could be squeezing out sockeye, Chinook and coho salmon.

“Pinks are an evolutionary miracle,” Hillstrand said. The smallest of the North Pacific salmon, pinks are also the fastest growing, and the least dependent on freshwater resources. Many of the pinks in Alaska’s Prince William Sound still spawn in intertidal areas where small streams trickle down to the salt.

The simple life history of pink salmon makes them attractive to hatchery operators, but their small size drives down the pink’s value, meaning any profits in the fisheries are built on high production.

If the ever increasing hatchery production of pinks, and to a lesser extent chums, is driving down production of wild sockeye, Chinook and coho salmon – as some scientists now believe, Hillstrand said, Alaskans losing those fish are paying a hidden subsidy to a small group of commercial fishermen.

Unfortunately, she added, few people in Alaska seem to want to study the problem; they’d rather just add another hatchery as residents of Bethel are now talking about doing. It would be the region’s first.








27 replies »

  1. The fish were going to be released there either way right? So what’s the fuss about? The are just fattening them up before they let them go. It’s not like they were going to get brought to some different watershed or something. If any even did get out they are already exposed to the water and coming back there. Maybe lower survivals? Not sure how that works though. Seems as you guys may or may not be any more knowledgeable? All in all whys it matter environmentally or a problem in the least? It doesn’t. It’s just people using it to push an agenda.

    Also… I hate to say it, but looking at it financially as you are AF sounds like you better get to telling all the governments across the country to just shut down and pack it in because we all know they just lose millions (or more) by continuing to exist… just food for thought. We have a lot of things in our culture that are run on debt. Not advocating for running on debt, just saying it’s common practice now a days.

    • Bob: that’s basically the state’s argument. a fish spill doesn’t matter in Alaska because, “hey, they were going to spill them anyway.” with that being the case and the attitude, it does make a reasonable man wonder whether it is worth the state’s cost of monitoring PNP hatcheries at all.
      why not just let them do whatever they want?
      of course, a similar argument could be made in Pugest Sound:
      “What’s the fuss? They weren’t just fattening them up before the sold them. It’s not like they’re going to survive in the wild. We’ve tried for 100 years to create Atlantic salmon runs on the West Coast and it’s never worked.”
      it’s that old debate over who much government regulation is too much and how much too little.
      the only thing in your comment i’d quibble with is this: “they are already exposed to the water and coming back there.”
      the straying seen from PWS humpies would demonstrates that might be true, but certainly can’t be counted upon. what has been witnessed with PWS humpies is that they stray like crazy:
      still, the really big question floating around out there unanswered is this one: what are all these hatchery salmon doing to the ecosystem of the North Pacific? are they, as some scientists now fear, displacing wild sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon? is there a process of invisible allocation going on here in which those in fisheries dependent on sockeye, coho and Chinook are losing fish to hatchery replacement with humpies?

    • What does it matter at this point?

      We can’t stop now cause we are talking big money.

      Locusts of the Sea is just great branding.

      There can’t be too many hungry mouths out in the ocean cause the ocean is big – Amirite?

      It’s not a problem, duh, cause science.

      Great responses. Keep them rolling in. Filling up the Bull$%!+ bingo card quickly.

    • I thought I would broaden the discussion by bringing in an international issue of sorts. The Bering Sea Pollock trawl fishery encounters Chinook and chum salmon when targeting Pollock and have limits on how many Chinook salmon can be taken. Through DNA analysis done by ADF&G and NMFS on tissue samples of the salmon collected by the NMFS At-sea Observer program over the past 10 years or so, we know that over 50 percent of the chum salmon taken as bycatch in the Eastern Bering Sea Pollock fishery are from hatcheries located in Japan and Russia. What are those Asian stream of origin salmon doing intermingled with the US Pollock stocks on the Eastern Bering Sea shelf? I suspect is they are eating a lot of prey that other fish might also be targeting for their suppy of food. Other fish now competing with these Asian origin salmon might be U.S. salmon stocks of origin say from the Yukon or Kuskokwim rivers or other Alaska river systems. Similar comparison is the rancher who enjoys having their herd of cattle graze on another person’s land. Maybe the US State Department should consider meeting with their counterparts in Russia and Japan and ask them to reduce the number of Chum salmon smolts that released to the salt water each year? Just a little food for thought….

      • and good food for thought, Brent. there is no doubt food competition in the Bering Sea and density dependent affects on multiple species of fish. a multi-nation agreement setting hatchery limits would seem a very good idea to preclude a hatchery arms race. Russia almost doubled it’s hatchery output between 2000 and 2010. it appeared to level off after that, but with Alaska’s creeping upward who knows what the Russians might decide to do.

  2. Craig, I had expected more from you and this blog at keeping “bullshit artists” from posting on here. In particular, just recently we got posts from (agimarc and aginarc) that are appearing to be the same person.
    Care to explain??

    • Obviously Agimarc misspelled – geez, just like everyone would have a clue that Bill Yanker would be a misspelling of your handle.

      • That’s not how it works Mavo. You either have a handle or you don’t. And it’s Yank my doodle it’s a dandy.
        Always possible that this yahoo (whoever he/she is) has more than one handle associated with his email address but we don’t know that.
        Craig knows but he doesn’t seem to want to respond.

    • i don’t devote full time to moderation, Bill. and i have no idea why an Alex Gimarc comment came up as aginarc. he’s never tried to disguise who he is. if you think he posted something that was bullshit, i’d suggest factually pointing out what was bullshit, preferably with links to references. people might learn something.

      • I did post to agimarc what I thought was bullshit and he has replied (as aginarc) but avoided dealing with it. The yahoo posted his opinion of my position that was complete bullshit (as agimarc) and I called him on it-he had nothing to say on it (as aginarc). I hardly need references or links to show my position (or response) as it’s pretty straight forward-he apparently doesn’t like my position so he alters it for reasons that I can’t figure.
        So…………… do know that agimarc posted that post that came up aginarc??
        Actually I had no idea it was by someone named Alex Gimarc as there is just no way to decipher that from gimarc. Whether he wants to disguise himself, or not, it’s not exactly clear who gimarc or ginarc is.
        My own handle is printed out prior to my posting on here and I suspect agimarc’s is also-he would have to go into it and alter his handle to get it to come up different than what originated, it seems. An accident?? It’s possible but this is the first time I’ve noticed something like this on here.

      • Bill,

        When you said “The yahoo posted his opinion of my position that was complete bullshit” I spent a good minute laughing! Glad you can admit that your position was complete bullshit! Thanks for the laughs Bill, lay off the crack though bud, you are getting harder and harder to follow. Also demanding that the guy who runs the site respond to your demands is very odd, even if you do send him a few bucks every once in awhile.

      • Well Steve-O we try to give all a good laugh now and then.
        Nobody seems to know how agimarc became aginarc but it appears that they both are the same individual (and a bullshit artist to boot).
        I guess I’m not that surprised that you are having trouble following along, too.

  3. The most important issue here is not who makes how much peddling their influence, although Alaskan good buddy corruption is astonishingly above the board, as per Cotton. The real issue is the destruction of non hatchery salmon runs because of pink salmon dumping. Ignoring the connection between numbers of mouths and amount of food is unforgivable. Evidence increasingly shows that wild fish resources are suffering because of outrageous increases in hatchery pink salmon releases. This is a resource crime, against all management goals of our constitution and an affront to almost all Ak residents. You can’t rampantly capitalize on pink salmon and expect nature to fall into line with your financial plans. CIAA isn’t the only bunch of losers here, we will all be soon enough.

    • First of all Louise you don’t know that those hungry mouths are doing the damage you speak of and second, even if you could show that they are a problem what do you do then?
      What’s to keep foreigners from taking up any slack we might give them by reducing our own pinks. Japan and Russia both are releasing salmon and if (big if here) there can be shown that all these ranched fish are causing problems with wild fish then it would be an enormous diplomatic issue to get everyone on board to curb these hatchery fish.
      Not impossible but first it has to be shown that there is the problem and then how to go about fixing it. Show me that they are the problem and I’m on board with a program to reduce them (releases) that works. I have no idea what would work here but I expect the biologists will tell us and then the State Department has to get involved.
      Just my opinion.

      • Bill, the first rule of holes is once you figure out you are in one, stop digging.

        There is credible evidence – much more based in fact than all the anti-Pebble, anti-logging, anti-drilling arm waving we have been paying obeisance to for decades – that too many hatchery pinks are a growing problem.

        Your response: So what? Keep pumping them out. Not enough data, etc.

        My response: Hold what we’ve got,. Don’t increase anything. Collect some data. And figure out how to roll the problem back. Hint: My solution also involves fish farming for pinks.

        ADF&G biologists will tell the State precisely what they are paid to tell them, so don’t put your money there.

        Bottom line: The more commfish permits we can convert into fish farming permits (onshore or offshore), the more fish make it to the fresh water to spawn, along with significantly decreased pressure from hatchery pink fry. Cheers –

      • “Your response: So what? Keep pumping them out. Not enough data, etc.” I like how you determined my response-did you pull that out of your ass??
        And you have to show me and everyone else that we are in a hole. You can’t do that and it’s frustrating, I know, but keep trying. It’s going to take some doing to prove what you suspect and it will also take those biologists to do what you can’t.
        There is not a chance in a carload that those hatcheries are going to be cut back on their releases without that proof. I suggest you hop to it and get that proof-otherwise stfu. What is that credible evidence you speak of?? Don’t be shy now just let it all out.

      • That’s some reasoned debate, there Bill. Right in line with what I’ve come to expect from commfish. Thanks for playing. Cheers –

      • Not that anyone knows who agimarc is here, but who in the hell is “aginarc?”
        And nobody gives a shit about “what you’ve come to expect from commfish!”

      • Bill: Your responses have some valid points. But they are lost in the rudeness contained in them. Your continual insults using unnecessary profanity does not serve you well. You complain to Medred about what others post while at the same time use insulting and defamatory language in your own posts. That seems somewhat hypocritical. And certainly of no help in understanding the issue.

      • AF, who would a thought you, of all people, would have such thin skin.
        Just skip over the rude parts or the whole thing if you are so offended by my rudeness.
        And I believe this is the first time I’ve complained to Craig (about others) and I believe I have a legitimate reason. You don’t?? Tough noogies!

  4. Aside from a handful of Sockeye caught by salt water anglers in Seward, CIAA has not produced the common property resource and harvest of the returning Sockeye by the commercial fleet for many years. Instead they contract with a couple of owners of Commercial vessels who harvest and sell the fish on behalf of CIAA. They take a cut and the rest of the revenue goes to the Association as “cost recovery”. But that pays for just a fraction of the operation of the hatchery. The rest of the money comes from grant funds, federal and state loans. CIAA has tens of millions of debt which can never be repaid. Yet it continues to operate all while losing millions each year. Some of their operations take place near Cotten’s Father inlaw Clem Tillion’s estate in Haibut Cove, near Homer. Tillion a life long commercial fisherman who loathes sports fishing has had great influence on Cotten. As a result there is little to no oversight of these hatcheries. They operates solely for the benefit of the hatchery employees, the Board of Director’s and the few contractors who harvest the fish for the so called “cost recovery”. If it was a business that’s had to make a profit in order to continue, it would have gone broke decades ago.
    Thank goodness the madness that has been occurring the last three years will end in November when Walker and Cotten will be handed their hats and shown the door.

    • You’re quite the dreamer AF. You would have us believe that these aquaculture associations can just wave a wand and the money just comes rolling in (grants and loans). Whew! You’d think that Clem was the governor.
      And just wait till Walker’s boy (Keith Meyer: ) comes through with some more gas sales from big three Oil cos. Good luck with coming up with someone (Dunleavy?) who can push back against a gasline that’s looking more possible every day.

      • Bill, I was quite clear in directing my comments towards CIAA and not “these aquaculture associations” that your comment references. Whether CIAA waves a wand or whatever, the fact remains that after all the years of trying it has failed to deliver the common property resource it was created for. And the fact remains that it owes millions in loans and full recourse grants. Tillion has always had significant influence on fisheries management, starting when he was appointed as the Fish King by Gov Walter H in 1990. And if you believe he does not have influence over his son in law, Commissioner Cotten, I have some wonderfull swamp land you might wish to purchase.
        I’m sure that there will be time to debate the likelihood of a gas line in the future. But for now the issue involves a hatchery.

      • AF, it was you that brought up Walker being handed his hat in November! Next you’ll be handing us that it will be over this hatchery.
        Like I said, you are a dreamer.

      • Bill, : To quote from the song Imagine, “You may think that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”.
        No it won’t be this one hatchery that sinks Walker. It will be a combination of things like his unilateral cut of $1,000 of the PFD, his push for a State income tax while refusing to make meaningful cuts in the budget, his push and huge spending on a pipeline that does now and will not pencil out in the foreseeable future, his incestuous hiring of friends on lucrative contracts, the unnecessary numerous special sessions he called, his failed fisheries policies ( yes that includes hatchery policy and his appointment of Cotten) and his blunders in the appointments of Board of Fisheries members. Just to name a few!
        There are many “ dreamers” who will express themselves in November.

      • Wha AF, I thought the issue was a hatchery?? Heheh!
        You best hope for a bunch of “dreamers!”
        But I suspect the voters will be influenced by the jobs that appear to be happening during a fairly intense recession that is hanging on with little let-up, since Oil prices crashed. Folks have been leaving the State steadily and you seem to think its over your feeling of “failed fisheries policies?”

  5. In quoting the “department authority” statute, these guys shop for what suits them. I rather prefer AS 16.40.120 (e) which says “The Board of Fisheries may adopt regulations for the conservation, maintenance, and management of species for which an acquisition permit is required.” Talk to Virgil about the Board’s authority. He was there when the hatchery issues started.

    Sent from my iPad


Leave a Reply