Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association positions itself as a group responsible for protecting and rehabilitating salmon stocks.
“One of the things we would like to do as an organization is to improve the economic structure of the commercial salmon industry within Cook Inlet. Raising pink salmon for additional harvest does that,” says Gary Fanderi.
Gary Fandrei, Executive Director of Cook Inlet Aquaculture, says right now they have a total of 12 net pens in the Tutka Bay Lagoon. The pens hold immature fish until they are ready to be released. They can handle about 100 million salmon fry. But, that is too many fish for the lagoon.
“The lagoon is a fairly confined area. When we release all 100 million fish from in the lagoon, they return to that lagoon when they return as adults,” says Fandrei.
When the tide is low it becomes nearly impossible to maneuver boats into the lagoon. Fandrei says if they can’t harvest the returning salmon quickly enough overcrowding will stress the stock Cook Inlet Aquaculture needs to breed the next generation. Their solution is to take eight of every ten fish to the head of Tutka Bay. In April 2013 Cook Inlet Aquaculture applied with the Department of Natural Resources for a permit to move the net pens. That application was first denied and then approved on appeal.
But in late May, the Commissioner of DNR rescinded the permit after receiving complaints from Kachemak Bay State Park residents. Nancy Hillstrand is one of those residents. She is a member of the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizen’s Advisory Board.
“And I also have a background in working with rehabilitation and enhancement of the fisheries with Alaska Department of Fish and Game over a twenty year period,” adds Hillstrand.
Hillstrand says Cook Inlet Aquaculture has moved past enhancing pink salmon stocks and has entered the realm of industrial artificial production.
“The key is for the hatchery to limit its production to the land allotted to it instead of expanding its huge footprint into [the] park and critical habitat we have here,” says Hillstrand.
She says the park doesn’t function to help just one species thrive. It’s there for all of them.
“When you do a plankton study prior to release of some of these fish you will see a big soup of all different kinds of species out there. Once you release this huge magnitude of fish out into a small narrow bay like that it’s like a big lawn mower going through,” says Hillstrand.
Fandrei claims any impacts on habitat would be minimal. He says the net pens would only be in the bay for 2-3 months starting anywhere around the end of January to the beginning of March.
“They would be then removed sometime before the end of June,” says Fandrei.
Glenn Hollowell with the Department of Fish and Game backs up Fandrei.
“There is not a significant salmon return to the river at the back of Tutka Bay. This river periodically freezes up very hard. So the gravel freezes down to a very deep level and it tends to kill off whatever salmon might have found their way back to those rivers,” says Hollowell.
Hollowell says Cook Inlet Aquaculture approached his department a couple of years ago to find the best location for a salmon release.
“When we release hatchery fish we like to release them from a very isolated place; and we also like to have them released near a significant freshwater outflow which ideally originates from a geological source,” says Hollowell.
A geological source that releases minerals the salmon will home in on during their migratory return. Hollowell says they found two places. They could keep the fish in Tutka Bay Lagoon.
“Or at the back of Tutka Bay next to the river that comes down the valley there,” says Hollowell.
Hillstrand questions Fish and Game’s part in this.
“The Department of Fish and Game has this directive to give priority to rehabilitating depleted species.” says Hillstrand.
She says they’re not doing that. She’s afraid the advice to move Cook Inlet Aquaculture’s fish to the Head of Tutka Bay will actually hurt chances to replenish populations of animals like Dungeness crab. Cook Inlet Aquaculture is in a holding pattern for now. They’re waiting for a decision from the Department of Natural Resources. DNR says they’re still reviewing the situation.