A YouTube video of a kayaker paddling over a seabed buried in the carcasses of dead, unspawned pink salmon has the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association apologizing for a humpy massacre in Alaska’s Tutka Bay Lagoon, but some aren’t all that satisfied with the explanation for the calamity.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Alan Parks, a retired purse seine skipper from the Kenai Peninsula community of Homer and a former Tutka Bay fisherman, said on Tuesday.
What doesn’t make sense in Park’s view is this CIAA explanation for the waste of thousands of pounds of salmon:
“Many of you have seen a video showing dead pink salmon in Tutka Bay posted by My Way Alaska on August 10, 2019,” the organization said in a statement released Monday. “We want to take this opportunity to explain what you are viewing. To cover operational costs for the hatchery programs, CIAA develops cost-recovery harvest plans for areas where hatchery-raised fish will be returning, including Tutka Bay Lagoon in Kachemak Bay.
“Through a public bidding process, CIAA licenses the cost recovery operation to processors, who in turn contract for the catcher vessel (a seiner) to harvest the fish. Once the fish are harvested, they are taken straight to the processor. These fish are not used for hatchery broodstock.
“On June (sic) July 28, the cost recovery seiner was fishing in Tutka Bay Lagoon. It had a purse seine full of pink salmon when the bottom of the net snagged on something and ripped. Unfortunately, the fish were released and a number of them died in the process. We estimate that approximately 700–1,200 fish were lost. Accidents like this do sometimes happen to commercial fishing vessels, and we are sorry for any confusion it has caused. Please share.”
Parks said his problem with that explanation is that if a seine net rips, the rip opens a hole, and the fish swim out. Based on 40 years of experience, he said, fish don’t die from simply being encircled in a net that snags on the bottom.
The net would have to be drawn up tight, he said – “pursed” as one might say – for the compression of hundreds of fish squeezed together to kill them. Otherwise, Parks said,”they’re going to remain alive.”
About the only way these fish could have died, he said, is if the net was pursed, brought to the boat and then broke open. But why then the fish weren’t simply scooped out of the lagoon is a mystery, said Nancy Hilstrand, a Kachemak Bay resident and sometime hatchery critic.
She used the term “wanton waste” – a big, no-no under Alaska fishing and regulations – to describe what happened. Another Kenai resident with a longtime involvement in commercial fisheries, Hillstrand doesn’t understand why no attempt appears to have been made to recover the dead fish, which were still perfectly salvageable after coming out of the seine.
“Brail them,” she said. “Seine them up again. Use buckets, dip nets!”
She accused the private, non-profit, commercial-fishermen run aquaculture association of having a sadly cavalier attitude toward resource use.
“ADF&G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) reported in 2015 a documented 75,000 dead loss, and the last two years we have documented this same scene of dead fish,” she said.
“This is not an exception to CIAA operations standard this is their normal routine.”
Parks said he just wishes the people involved with the organization were better stewards of the resource.
“It’s cost recovery,” he said. “It’s not a commercial fishery. There’s no competition. There’s no rush. Make a set; purse up. You should be able to see what your net’s doing. If it’s hung up, stop and free it.
“If you lose some fish, it’s no big deal. You’re going to make another set.”
“Cost-recovery” fisheries are state-sanctioned operations that allow the private, non-profit hatcheries to catch enough fish to cover their operating costs. Net-pen fish farming as practiced in Norway, Chile and elsewhere around the world has been illegal for decades in the 49th state, but Alaska is the national leader in open-range farming or what some prefer to call “salmon ranching.”
The U.S. pumped 1.9 billion young salmon into the ocean in 2017, according to the NPAFC. Eighty-four percent of the fish came from Alaska hatcheries. Alaska hatchery production is about two and a half times that of all the U.S. West Coast states and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The fish are sold globally as “wild-caught salmon” as part of a state-backed marketing effort to differentiate the fish from salmon raised in farms criticized as environmentally unfriendly or polluted with drugs used to keep the fish healthy.
The Alaska hatchery program is viewed as a cleaner, more environmentally friendly alternative though the scale of the program has come under fire as global warming has focused new attention on the North Pacific. The Associated Press on Sunday reported some scientists fear “pink salmon numbers may threaten other North Pacific species.”
Some studies have indicated certain sockeye, coho and Chinook stocks may have been reduced by competition for food with an ocean brimming with pinks, the smallest and fastest maturing of the five species of salmon native to the West Coast of North America.
But the only salmon listed as “threatened” by the federal government are in Lower 48 streams where dams, agriculture and development have played havoc with salmon habitat.
Still, scientists studying the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 2017 found something unexpected in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Residual oil didn’t appear to be harming wild fish, but there were indications hatcheries were impacting wild sockeye salmon in the legendary Copper River.
When the hatchery production of pinks went up, the study said, the number of wild Copper sockeye returning to the river went down. Top state fisheries officials have largely dismissed such studies with the observation that “correlation is not causation.”
Or, as the AP’s Dan Joling wrote, “state regulators say they have no evidence that the ocean has reached its carrying capacity for hatchery fish, which rewarded Alaska commercial fishermen with sales averaging $120 million for 2012 through 2017. They are loath to seek a reduction in hatchery output because of the economic, societal and cultural value of the fish.
“But scientists who don’t have a connection to the department take a different view.”
The Tutka pinks, for their part, won’t be causing anyone any more problems.