Already struggling financially and facing unhappy neighbors in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) now finds itself being drawn into a public-relations mess with four board members charged in an explosive case of illegal fishing.
And one of the men charged believes CIAA efforts to grow more salmon is at the heart of the issue.
“This is all about politics,” commercial seiner Mark Roth said Thursday. “There are groups out there who want to shut down hatcheries. That’s what it’s coming from….It’s all trumped-up charges.”
Roth is a long time, Homer-based fisherman and the co-founder, along with wife Linda, of a commendable organization that in the off-season leads youth on missions to Costa Rica to perform aid work.
The Roths’ “HRTWAM – Hebrew Roots, Teens with A Mission” “camp teaches the teens the difference between religion and service,” according to Crucified Life Ministries. “The campers are trained, equipped, and released (activated) to make a difference by serving others. One of the main goals of this camp (is to help the teens progress from just ‘talking’ about the Scriptures to living them with those around them.”
Mark has a solid reputation on the Kenai Peninsula. Court records reflect that except for a few traffic tickets and once hiring an unlicensed crewman to work on his commercial fishing boat, he’s never had a run in with the law.
“I’ve been fishing out here for 41 years and never had a ticket,” he said. “How may tickets are written ever year?”
Enough that there is no quick and easy way to tabulate them all, according to the state, and it is unusual for a commercial fisherman in Alaska to go 41 years without a ticket. Court records show that most of the members of the board of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), the regions’ most powerful fishing lobby, have been ticketed at least once for breaking fishing rules.
Fishermen regularly fish too close to open-closed lines, stray across and get ticketed. As Mark noted, those cases almost never make the news.
In the news
For the 64-year-old Mark, sons Paul, 35, and Robert, 39, and friend Eric Winslow, a 61-year-old Alaska fishermen whose home is in Florida, it was different. They this week made the news in a big way on the Kenai and beyond
Mark noted the latter claim is misleading. The group, he said, caught about twice that much salmon, but what only charged illegally harvesting 33,000 pounds of salmon.
KBBI-News on the Peninsula, quoting AWT Kenai detachment commander Rex Leath, reported that “while some people may look at a closed water case and think it’s not the end of the world, it actually could literally be the end of a run in an area. In this case, there’s 33,000 pounds of fish that will not make it back up that creek that were supposed to make it back up that creek to spawn. That’s a big deal for us.”
National Fisherman, a widely read trade publication covering the fishing industry, read that description as “creek robbing” and headlined its story “Crooked catch: Four fishermen nabbed for creek robbing in Alaska.”
Mark said the idea the men were engaged in “creek robbing” is simply absurd, and he noted not a single news organizations (other than this one) every tried to reach the fishermen.
Creek robbing involves catching fish in or near the mouth of a stream. Mark said his boat, the F/V Little Star, and the others fishing at Dog Fish Bay were nowhere near close to a stream mouth.
Courts documents have Mark charged with driving fish from closed waters to open waters and illegally transporting fish, and ticketed for not having his purse seiner properly identified, though he said the state numbers and the state sticker are clearly visible on the his boat.
Whether they are the exact 12-inch size required by law is unknown.
Mark believes he and the others were specifically targeted by AWT while fishing on the southwest tip of the Peninsula and wrongly charges. And the only reason he can think of for that happening is their involvement with CIAA.
Farming Alaska style
CIAA is one of four, regional, private-nonprofit hatchery operations the state of Alaska helped to get started in the 1970s to farm fish before fish farming became a big business and was banned in the 49th state.
The Alaska hatcheries, however, continued as salmon “ranches,” not farms. The Alaska operations breed and raise fish in captivity, then send them off as fry and smolt into the wild pastures of the North Pacific to mature.
Think free-range cattle, and you’ll get the idea. The fish return to be caught by commercial fishermen and by the canneries which need salmon for “cost recovery.” They are then marketed as “wild-caught” Alaska salmon to differentiate them from farmed salmon.
Financed and controlled by commercial fishermen, the hatcheries are now tens of millions in dollars in debt to the state which provided them with loans. CIAA owes the state about $13 million. But the financial status of the hatcheries has not been a big issue.
Controversy has centered on net-pen sighting, hatchery fish straying and, increasingly, the competition between hatchery fish and wild fish, a competition that in some cases the wild fish appear to be losing.
Scientists studying Prince William Sound (PWS) as part of a search for lingering environmental effects from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill stumbled on something else.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns,” they reported in a 2017 paper. “While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns. Pink salmon have been found to negatively affect sockeye salmon productivity and growth from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Russia.”
The sockeye affected by those Sound pinks included the fabled fish of the Copper River, the most valuable sockeye in Alaska. At the start of the season this year, those fish were bringing fishermen $9.50 per pound at the dock, but the season quickly turned into a bust.
Coming as it did on the heels of a 2017 Sound harvest of 48.7 million pinks – more than half of them hatchery fish – out of a run of more than 55 million of the so-called humpies in the Sound, the 2018 Copper sockeye run was a disaster. Only 26,000 sockeye were caught before the fishery closed after just three commercial openings in May. It then struggled to meet spawning goals.
With the Copper run failing – it would eventually meet the spawning goal but with little commercial, dipnet or sport harvest – the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and a host of other conservation-minded organizations petitioned the state Board of Fisheries to freeze planned hatchery expansion in the Sound.
The decision did not sit well with some people in Homer at the southern end of the Peninsula who were still upset about the large numbers of Sound pinks that strayed into Lower Cook Inlet last year.
Humpies showed up in some streams at a level 35 times greater than the environmental safety threshold once suggested by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but as state Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley later noted, the standard was never made official so the rate is meaningless in the eyes of the Department.
Hatchery critics already upset about the net pens CIAA was given a permit to put in Kachemak Bay State Park outside of Homer took Kelley’s comment as a slap in the face.
Nancy Hillstrand – a commercial fish processor, the widow of a commercial fisherman and one of the chief hatchery critics in the Homer area – said she was at the point where she couldn’t believe a thing state officials said about hatcheries. It appears the massive, privately run, commercial-fishermen-controlled hatcheries have come to operate largely free of state oversight, she said.
The private, non-profit hatchery operations are supposed to be under the control of so-called “regional planning teams” (RPTs) made up half and half of hatchery officials and ADF&G employees, but Hillstrand said the RPTs appear to be run by the hatcheries.
Along with serving on the CIAA board, Mark Roth sits on the Cook Inlet RPT along with commercial driftnetters Dave Martin and Steve Vanek. The state contingent includes Sam Rabung, the state aquaculture director. Rambung in on record saying he has seen no evidence that Alaska wild salmon stocks are being harmed by hatchery salmon.
He also suggested to Juneau Empire reporter Kevin Gullufsen that the hatchery fish might actually be helping boost Alaska Chinook and coho (silver) salmon numbers. As Gullufsen reported:
“Pink and chum salmon fry are a prey species for Chinook and coho salmon, he (Rabung) added, so it’s worth noting that, at least in the early stages of their life cycles, hatchery pink and chum salmon are the prey for king and coho.”
Other scientists have taken issue with that view. They say fast-growing pink salmon have a competitive advantage over slower maturing sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon. Because of that and because of the boost from the hatcheries, Seattle researcher Greg Ruggerone and Canadian colleague James Irvine have estimated that 67 percent of the adult salmon in the North Pacific are pinks and pinks, which mature in only two years, make up 48 percent of the entire biomass of salmon in the ocean.
The biomass number is lower than the adult number because most species of salmon spend two to five years in the ocean. Most of them don’t survive to maturity.
The data presents sufficient reasons for Alaska lovers of wild fish to be worried about hatcheries and leave them with some motive to want to discredit hatchery supporters, but whether Alaska troopers could some end up tied into that at this point remains wild-caught speculation.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story had the poundage of the catch at Dog Fish Bay wrong.