DNR orders Tutka Bay salmon net pens to be moved

A discrepancy between where pink salmon net pens are now anchored in Tutka Bay and their listed location in a Department of Natural Resources permit means the net pens will have to be moved to the permitted location — even though that’s not the location intended by Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, the organization who got the permit.

On April 26, CIAA put the controversial net pens in Tutka Bay near a waterfall. That’s at a site identified as Option C by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the site preferred by CIAA, said Executive Director Gary Fandrei.

“By far the best place to put them is at the head of the bay where they are currently located,” Fandrei said in a phone interview on Monday. “That is where they would get the best fresh water influence and imprinting. That was also the spot that ADF&G would like to see them located.”

Fandrei referred to the tendency of salmon to return to the location where they first spend their lives. The same imprinting process is done in the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon so that mature salmon will return to the area.

However, the waterfall site is not what CIAA put on its permit. The permit site is closer to Tutka Bay Lagoon, where CIAA has a fish hatchery, and about 1.25 miles northwest from where the net pens are now. Fandrei said CIAA used the DNR permit coordinates on applications with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and a federal National Pollutant Discharge System permit. To add to the confusion, some coordinates were given in latitude-longitude measurements done in decimals and others in degrees, minutes and seconds.

Kachemak Bay Area Ranger Jason Okuly said it appears someone at CIAA dropped a pin on a map using Google Earth — a web based geographic information systems program — to come up with the coordinates. A map with the permit shows a Google Earth image and handwritten coordinates.

Okuly said he received complaints “from day one” about the net pens. The Homer News first heard of the discrepancy between the net pen’s physical location and its permitted location from Alan Parks, a commercial fisherman and water taxi operator. Parks took coordinates and provided them to the Homer News in an email on May 1, along with a photograph. Parks also reported the discrepancy to Okuly. The permit designates Okuly as the DNR and State Parks contact for the permit.

“We treat CIAA the same way we treat our other permits,” Okuly said. “We give people a chance to comply with the permit.”

That would be done by updating the permit, Okuly said on Monday. On Tuesday, though, Okuly called the Homer News to say he had been given a new direction: State Parks will tell CIAA to move the net pens to its permitted location. Ethan Tyler, division director of Alaska State Parks in Anchorage, confirmed that on Tuesday.

“We looked into it, and in simplest terms, basically they were not where they were permitted to be in their permit,” Tyler said. “Based on that, we asked them to relocate where it was specified in their permit.”

Tyler didn’t know why there was a discrepancy between what CIAA intended and what was written in the permit. He started last July, after the permit was issued on March 31, 2017.

“I can’t find anything in writing that talks about this other location,” he said. “My understanding is there were some verbal conversations about that (the current location) being a preferred spot by Fish and Game.”

Tyler said he didn’t want to “throw CIAA under the bus. I think they thought they were doing it right … At the end of the day, the location didn’t match DNR’s permit and they need to move. And they’re cooperating.”

On Tuesday, Fandrei said CIAA would comply with the request of Alaska State Parks officials. He said the waterfall site is still the preferred site. Fandrei said he has contacted the CIAA board of directors about the latest development.

“Our goal is to comply with all the permits and regulatory agencies,” Fandrei said. “We will work with all of them to minimize all kinds of conflict.”

Okuly also noted ADF&G preferred the current site and that it’s in a more undeveloped area. The permitted site is in an area with more development, including the fish hatchery.

The net pens have been hotly debated among commercial fishermen trying to increase pink salmon brood stock, tourist businesses who say the pens would ruin views and environmentalists who say having more pink salmon would stress the ecosystem.

Some critics also pointed out that the upper bay location was in a relatively wild part of Kachemak Bay State Park. Moving the net pens from the unpermitted location addresses that criticism.

The permit allows the pens to be in Tutka Bay until June 30, but Fandrei said the goal is to release the salmon fry by the end of May or early June.

About 2.5 million of a planned 20 million salmon have been put in the pens. Fandrei said the initial batch was for CIAA to do some test runs to make sure things run smoothly. The permit allows for 10 pens, but CIAA is only using two. Parks also had raised concerns about the pens not having the six required for 10 pens as specified in the permit. Okuly said the two pens don’t need as many anchors. CIAA also will address concerns about not having properly marked buoys, Okuly said.

To move the net pens, CIAA will gather the net up in a purse. The pens have nets on all sides and the bottom. CIAA also will wait for better tides to make moving the pens and fry easier.

“They’re little guys,” Fandrei said. “They don’t move that fast. Moving them a couple hundred yards is a long, tedious process.”

Fandrei said CIAA’s goal is to get the net pens out before the traditional start of the tourist season over Memorial Day weekend.

“We’re sensitive to the neighbors and what they desire,” he said Monday. “But at the same time we have to rear the fish to an appropriate size.”

“It’s difficult for us because we’re dealing with multiple agencies and keeping everybody happy, including the public,” he said on Tuesday.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.