Hatchery debate wages on as research continues

Net pens at Cook Inlet Aquaculture’s Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. (Photo by Aaron Bolton/KBBI)

A conflict is intensifying over hatcheries in Prince William Sound.

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For the second time this year, Alaska’s Board of Fisheries is weighing an emergency petition to block a hatchery from increasing its production. This is the latest skirmish in a battle over whether pink salmon hatcheries are causing more harm than good.

“This is the incubation room in here, and what we’re having here is stacks of incubators,” Gary Fandrei said as he pointed towards stacks of incubators that look like the drawers to a really large tool chest. “We actually have a total of 359 incubators that we have available to us in here.”

Fandrei is in charge of Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, and he’s giving a tour of the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery near Homer.

This summer, the facility will harvest up to 125 million pink salmon eggs. Depending on survival, most of those eggs will hatch in the fall.

A row of incubators at the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. (Photo by Aaron Bolton/KBBI)

Like other pink Salmon hatcheries, the one at Tutka Bay has attracted scrutiny over the last couple of years over growing environmental concerns.

“The big issue that’s confronting us right now that seems to come up is the ocean carrying capacity,” Fandrei explained, “Whether we’re putting too many fish out in the ocean for the ocean to be able to support that number.”

The other issue raised by critics is a growing body of research indicating that biological problems can arise when pink salmon from hatcheries spawn with wild fish.

In response to concerns, the Board of Fisheries re-established its committee on hatcheries earlier this year.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is also in the midst of a multi-year study on hatchery pink and chum salmons’ interactions with wild stocks. That study is funded by several hatchery nonprofits and fish processors.

“So what we’re really interested in understanding is how aggregates of pink salmon in Prince William Sound and Chum Salmon in Southeast Alaska genetically vary from one another,” Chris Habicht, a geneticist working on the project, said.

Habicht said some species like sockeye can genetically vary within a single river system, but on the other side of that spectrum are pink and chum.

“Species like pink salmon have a much shallower population structure,” Habicht said. “In other words, genetically, they are more similar across a larger geographic area than other species of salmon.”

Habicht hopes the project will get researchers closer to understanding whether hatchery fish can skew the genetics of wild pinks and chums enough to make them less resilient over time.

Researchers also question if too many hatchery fish are being released into the waters of the Pacific between Russia, Alaska and Japan.

Greg Ruggerone with Seattle-based Natural Resource Consultants has published several studies on the abundance of salmon and their diets. By his estimates, pink salmon make up nearly 70 percent of all the salmon in the North Pacific. Even though hatchery pinks are only 15 percent of that total, it’s still a lot of fish.

“That 15 percent of hatchery pink salmon translates to about 82 million hatchery pink salmon,” Reuggerone said.

Pink salmon are aggressive feeders, and Ruggerone’s latest study found large numbers of them are severely depleting zooplankton supplies in the Bering Sea.

“The plankton are the building blocks for the north Pacific, supporting sockeye salmon. Those zooplankton also support other species that are consumed by chinook salmon or coho salmon,” Ruggerone explained.

Ruggerone said seabirds may also be suffering from that ripple in the food web, and research like this is leading to more scrutiny for hatchery operators like Fandrei.

Ruggerone said the industry takes these topics seriously, but when it comes to emergency petitions like the one the Board of Fish will consider next week, Fandrei is nervous about the outcome.

“I don’t want to see knee-jerk reactions, and I don’t want to see just an overzealous type change that could come up,” Fandrei said. “That might be something that would be negative to the hatchery program when it’s totally not necessary.”

It’s unlikely that the latest petition over the Solomon Gulch Hatchery will definitively tip the argument one way or the other, but both sides say it could signal a change in how the Board of Fish handles the growing body of concerns.

The board will take up the emergency petition on July 17, and its hatchery committee will meet for the first time in October.