After decades of opposing industrial development in the waters near the southern end of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, the City of Homer is now going to bat for an industrial-scale fish farm the state wants removed from Kachemak Bay State Park.
Park planners have concluded the historic, 45-year-old Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery violates the intent of state lawmakers who created the scenic park in 1970.
“During the planning process, the public offered many comments on the hatchery and its operations,” a proposed new park plan says. “Many suggested that the common property fishery arising from hatchery fish was so minimal that the hatchery should be reclassified as a commercial operation rather than a state management operation designed to enhance fisheries.
“Concerns were (also) raised that moving the net pens outside Tutka Bay Lagoon degrades the scenic beauty of the park and the quality of recreational opportunities and that the pens’ associated discharges harm the environment. Other concerns expressed included that the large number of pink salmon produced at the hatchery clogs personal set nets; leads to straying far outside Tutka Bay; impacts the food web, thereby depleting many marine species (including king and tanner crab, halibut, shrimp, herring, Pacific cod, clams, and mussels); and supplants wild salmon genomes.
“(But) other commenters lauded the hatchery’s cost recovery as good for commercial fisherman and thought the hatchery complements the natural scenery.”
The Homer City council placed itself among the latter despite the hatchery’s somewhat troubled history.
It was last year the scene of a massive fish kill that made international news after a European kayaker paddling in the bay shot a video of the seabed littered with the carcasses of pink salmon and mistakenly blamed their deaths on warm water caused by climate change.
As it turned out, the fish had been killed by a commercial fisherman dispatched to the bay to catch fish for the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA). CIAA eventually released a statement explaining the fish kill and waste as an unfortunate accident.
In the process of seining salmon to deliver to a local fish processor to help pay for the costs of running the hatchery, the statement said, “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.”
Some fishermen questioned the explanation, but CIAA stood by it.
CIAA is a nonprofit business controlled by commercial fishermen. It is one of several regional, nonprofit companies established under the terms of a 1974 state law intended to help boost harvests in the state’s then struggling commercial fisheries.
At the time, Alaska commercial salmon harvests were at record lows, and the residents of the then-new state were widely blaming fallout from bad management by federal officials when Alaska was a territory.
Hatcheries were viewed as a quick and easy remedy to what was viewed as a salmon crisis, and in the 1970s Alaska voters, who were then paying income taxes, approved bond issues to fund a number of the facilities, including Tutka.
The Tutka hatchery was built by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and run by the state agency until 1991 when the state turned the costly-to-operate facility over to CIAA, which – like other regional aquaculture associations – was given the authority to both tax commercial fishermen and harvest hatchery salmon to cover the costs of running the hatchery
By the ’90s, however, Alaska’s wild salmon stocks had rebounded almost too strongly. Supply for years outpaced demand and salmon prices crashed. In 2004, a Fish and Game report notes, “CIAA suspended pink salmon operations (at Tutka) due to low pink salmon prices.” Production did not resume until 2010.
The scientific consensus by that time was that the decline in wild salmon productivity in the ’70s was mainly linked to a climatic shift – the so-called Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) – that left the North Pacific full of cold water.
“Our synthesis of climate and fishery data from the North Pacific sector highlights the existence of a very large-scale, interdecadal, coherent pattern of environmental and biotic changes,” a group of them observed in a peer-reviewed study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 1997.
“This climatic regime–driven model of salmon production has broad implications for fishery management. The most critical implication concerns periods of low productivity….(fishery) managers might be well advised to exercise caution in claiming credit for a situation that may be beyond their control.”
Against that backdrop, some scientists began to question the need for hatcheries, but the operations had become Alaska institutions supported by commercial fishing interests who argue they are now economically vital, given that the hatcheries regularly account for up to a third of the state’s now huge salmon harvests.
Since the ’70s, Pacific waters have remained generally warm; Alaska salmon harvests have reached new record numbers every decade; and views on hatcheries – once universally considered the salvation of struggling salmon runs – have shifted somewhat.
Some scientists are now arguing unprecedented abundances of pinks and chums in the Pacific, an increased fueled in part by hatchery production, is driving declines in king, coho and sockeye salmon in some areas of the 49th state, and hatcheries themselves have come under fire as more of a threat to the long-term survival of wild salmon than a help to the species.
European scientists studying Atlantic salmon only months ago warned that efforts to bolster runs of those fish through the use of hatcheries might actually be having the opposite effect over the long term.
“Even if offspring of captive-bred fish are initially competitively superior to offspring of wild-bred fish (as has been found for wild-bred offspring of farmed salmon), this advantage is more than outweighed by processes that reduce their overall survival,” they wrote in a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Proceedings in October.
What looks to be good in the short term, they said, proves to be bad when measured in individual “lifetime reproductive success (LRS).”
“Using a molecular pedigree, we demonstrate that, on average, the LRS of captive-bred individuals was only 36 percent that of wild-bred individuals,” the reported. “A significant LRS difference remained after excluding individuals that left no surviving offspring, some of which might have simply failed to spawn, consistent with transgenerational effects on offspring survival. The annual productivity of the mixed population (wild-bred plus captive-bred) was lower in years where captive-bred fish comprised a greater fraction of potential spawners. These results bolster previous empirical and theoretical findings that intentional stocking, or non-intentional escapees, threaten, rather than enhance, recipient natural populations.”
“What is really worrying is that with an increased proportion of captive-born spawners, a population’s productivity declines linearly,” Ronan James O’Sullivan, the studies lead author, told the website Phys.org.
“That means that when you have a healthy, self-sustaining population of salmon, there is no level at which it is safe to stock fish.”
An evolutionary biologist at University College Cork in Ireland, O’Sullivan confessed to serious concerns for the fate of salmon losing genetic variability due to so-called “enhancement” efforts at a time when climate change is altering their environment and thus making genetic variability more important than ever for longterm survival.
Though this has come up as an issue of concern on both coasts of the Atlantic and increasingly in the Pacific Northwest, the Alaska hatchery focus remains almost solely on increasing the number of salmon available for harvest.
As a resolution approved by the Homer council put it, “one distinguishing feature of Alaska aquaculture is that fisheries enhancement is designed to provide salmon harvest opportunities….”
The council’s resolution “opposing proposed changes to management plan of Kachemak Bay State Park and state wilderness park” also sought to distance the Tutka hatchery from “environmentally offensive ‘fish farming’ – a controversial, offshore practice that remains illegal in the state of Alaska.”
This is despite the fact that, as Kachemak Bay hatchery critic Nancy Hillstrand has observed, the Tutka operation has come to look a lot like Norwegian fish farming. CIAA now raises fish in offshore net pens to increase their size before release in an effort to boost survival.
Hillstrand was not impressed by the city resolution that passed four to three with Mayor Ken Castner tipping the balance of a deadlocked council.
“When I read each whereas, I cringe at the lack of knowledge and faulty info,” she said.
Castner is a contractor who holds state permits to fish commercially for herring and crab. Alaska commercial fishermen have been steadfast backers of the nonprofit hatcheries even though some studies have indicated the hatcheries might run counter to their interests.
A 2017 study looking for long-term damage from the then nearly 30-year-old Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound stumbled on indications that the massive hatchery production there appeared to be suppressing returns of high-value sockeye salmon to the Copper River and thus biting into the pocketbooks of Cordova-based gillnetters who harvest those fish.
While the peer-reviewed study could find no evidence the oil spill had caused long-term harm to fisheries, it noted that among “the salmon species, the largest driver was the negative impact of adult pink salmon returns on sockeye salmon productivity….
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns. 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.”
Bill Templin, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s director of fisheries research, at that time told the Fish Board that hatchery production of low-value pink salmon could be affecting the numbers of high-value sockeye, Chinook and coho (silver) salmon, but there is no concrete evidence to support that hypothesis.
“Correlation is not causation,” he advised the Board, which subsequently voted 5-2 against capping hatchery production.
The vote reflected, in part, a widely held Alaska view that the salmon farming undertaken in the 49th state – where it is called “ranching” and the hatchery fish marketed as “wild caught” – is environmentally friendlier than raising the fish to marketable size in net pens or so-called “blue houses” as is done around the world today.
Whether pen-free fish farming is environmentally more friendly has been the subject of some debate though the majority of the Homer council saw the issue as clearcut:
“CIAA activities bolster salmon through their entire lifecycle and the nutrients that they provide uniquely support land-based ecosystems; and this marine-to-land transference of biomass is rare biologically and critical to inland wildlife populations near Homer.”
Not to mention the “economic benefits.”
Fields of gray
A trio of researchers the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) commissioned to look at the issues of farmed salmon versus ranched salmon more than a decade ago didn’t see the issue quite as simply.
“Overall, hatcheries add another dimension of complexity and ambiguity to the environmental, economic and social issues related to wild and farmed salmon,” they reported. “Once thought of as a way to restore and enhance natural wild salmon runs, hatchery salmon are
now recognized as potentially harmful to natural wild salmon runs because of genetic interactions and competition for food and habitat in freshwater and marine environments. Particularly in the U.S. Pacific
Northwest, there is an active debate among scientists, commercial fishermen and the public as to the appropriate role and scale of salmon hatcheries.”
The lengthy report – “The Great Salmon Run: Competition Between Wild and Farmed Salmon” – was completed in 2007. The lead author on the report was Alaskan Gunnar Knapp, then an economist at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).
He has since retired, but the hatchery debate rolls on. And in Alaska it’s not about just one hatchery, according to the Homer assembly, which voted to affirm “its general support for regional aquaculture associations and their programs and for CIAA in particular.”
CIAA’s Tutka Bay hatchery is itself a small player in the hatchery business, but in the big picture, there are a lot of jobs and money today linked to the business.
“Currently, 30 salmon hatcheries are operating in the state,” according to Fish and Game’s annual salmon fisheries enhancement report. “Twenty-six facilities are operated by private nonprofit corporations, which are funded primarily from the sale of a portion of hatchery returns.
“In 2019, the commercial fleet caught about 50 million hatchery-produced salmon worth an estimated $118 million dollars in ex-vessel value. Hatchery fish contributed 25 percent of the statewide commercial salmon harvest and 18 percent of the statewide commercial harvest ex-vessel value.”
The low value is attributable to hatchery production concentrated on lower value pink and chum salmon which are cheaper and easier to raise than high-value sockeye, cohos and Chinook.
Along with producing a sizeable commercial harvest, the nonprofit hatcheries are promoted as a boon to sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries as well, but their contribution there is small.
“An additional 233,500 Alaska hatchery fish were caught in the sport,
personal use, and subsistence fisheries,” the state report said. That’s about 0.5 percent of total hatchery production.
For comparison purposes, the personal-use dipnet fishery in the Kenai River regularly posts larger catches of wild sockeye salmon, and the Cook Inlet sport harvest of wild sockeye is often twice as much.