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.
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.
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.”
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.