DNR seeks comment on state parks management plan

Proposal to phase out Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery draws ire

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is currently taking public comments on the most recent draft of the Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park Management Plan, which guides operations and uses in both those areas.

The process to begin revising the plan that guides both parks began in 2012. A public scoping period took place in 2013 and 2014, followed by stakeholder meetings in 2016. A public review draft of the plan was released in 2018 in order for DNR to receive public comments. Based off those comments, the department has now come back with this intent-to-adopt version of the plan.

An intent-to-adopt version is presented to the public when there have been significant or major changes made to a plan, said Monica Alavarez with DNR. It can be read here: dnr.alaska.gov/parks/plans/kbay/kbayplan.htm.

Kachemak Bay State Park includes much of the south side of Kachemak Bay from Tutka Bay to Bear Cove and in the Nuka Island area. Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park includes the area south of the state park to Gore Point, including the Port Dick and Tonsina Bay areas.

Along with this version of the plan is an issue summary document that shows many of the comments DNR got on the public review draft of the plan, and how it addressed those comments in this version. That summary can be read here to see exactly what changes have been made between the last version of the plan and this most recent version: dnr.alaska.gov/parks/plans/kbay/final/kbsp_irs.pdf

While many changes have already been made to the management plan, that doesn’t mean DNR is done making any alterations after this next public comment period.

“We wouldn’t put it out for public comment if we weren’t open to making changes to the plan,” Alvarez said.

However, she said submitting the same comments and concerns as before won’t be particularly helpful. She encouraged people to look at the issue summary document so they can see what comments and critiques have already been made and how DNR decided to react to them. She encouraged people to comment on the new or altered parts of the management plan, or on issues where they aren’t happy with the response.

Comments on the intent-to-adopt draft of the management plan are due by Friday, Jan. 22. They can be sent by email to kbsp.comments@alaska.gov, by fax to (907)269-8915 or by mail to:

Kachemak Bay State Park Planning

550 West 7th Ave, Suite 1050

Anchorage, AK 99501

One particular facet of the management plan has sparked concern among those invested in commercial and recreational fishing in the bay. The plan includes a section on fisheries enhancement, specifically hatcheries, that finds them incompatible with the park intent. According to the plan, the state is exploring a way to phase out the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, and, if the plan were adopted as written, would not renew the operating agreement with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association in 2031.

The hatchery has not always been considered incompatible with the state park. It was established by the Department of Fish and Game in 1975 and was a state operated hatchery for 16 years. In 1991, Fish and Game contracted management of the hatchery to Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association.

The potential incompatibility with the hatchery is one of legal standing, Alvarez said. When the park was first created by the Alaska Legislature in 1970, it was removed from the public domain. The state is prohibited from disposing of any real property interests, and that includes leases and easements, according to the plan.

“Legislatively designated lands cannot be sold, and thus the state must be cautious from entering into agreements which could constitute a disposal of park lands,” the plan states.

The issue is that, over the years and through various court decisions, the definition of what counts as a disposal of land has gotten more and more broad, Alvarez said. The transfer of the hatchery from the state to Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, paired with the fact that some of the hatchery’s infrastructure may not fit the park’s purpose and may not be easily removed, could suggest a disposal of state park lands.

The founding Alaska statute for the state park states it was created to “… protect and preserve this land and water for its unique and exceptional scenic value, the park is established and shall be managed as a scenic park.” Anything development besides those for scenic values and recreation need to be evaluated, and evaluating the hatchery as a major development that made changes to land could show that it’s inconsistent with the park’s purpose, Alvarez said.

The process of reevaluating the hatchery and how it fits within the state park was spurred when Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association applied to the Division of Parks and Recreation to place net pens in Tutka Bay in 2019, as well as to dispose of brood stock carcasses in Tutka Bay. Both permits were denied but have been appealed, and are still being litigated.

“That kind of started a closer look at the hatchery operations in general,” Alvarez said.

Supporters of the hatchery worry that its elimination would have a detrimental effect on commercial, sport and personal use fishing in Kachemak Bay. In fact, sport fishing and personal use fishing scored third and fourth, respectively, on a list of park activities in terms of amount of participation, according to a 2012-14 survey included in the plan document.

Salmon produced at the hatchery have been released in several locations in Kachemak Bay over the years and support commercial, sport and personal use fisheries in the area. The hatchery rears pink salmon until they reach fry stage, and then temporarily rears them in net pens. The hatchery is also a rearing site for sockeye salmon from the Trail Lakes Hatchery, which end up contributing to fishing opportunities in the bay, like the China Poot personal use dipnet fishery and fishing in Tutka Bay.

At its Monday meeting, the Homer City Council passed a resolution supporting area aquaculture associations and “strongly opposing proposed changes” to the management plan that would impact the hatchery, and therefore the Homer community.

The vote was not unanimous, with some council members unhappy with the language of the resolution and preferring a resolution that was more all-encompassing in its comments about the management plan. The vote was tied 3-3, and Homer Mayor Ken Castner cast a tie-breaking vote to pass the resolution.

Alvarez said that, the way it’s written right now, the park management plan will direct DNR to explore ways to phase out the hatchery. Since the agreement with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association is through 2031, that leaves lots of time for figuring out a way to do that while still maintaining fishery enhancement in the bay, she said. Those enhancement activities, like egg takes, may still be able to happen even if the hatchery was not physically there, she said.

“I think what people need to realize is that we have a legal vulnerability here,” Alvarez said. “Because we have active cases in court … today, it’s entirely plausible that the court could say this is a disposal (of land), get rid of it now.”

The management plan is an attempt to be proactive, Alvarez said, and DNR is open to ideas and suggestions about how to least impact fishing, and how to continue fishery enhancement measures in a creative way.

“In no way do we want to eradicate fishery enhancement from the area,” she said.

Len Fabich, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, testified to the importance of the hatchery during Monday’s city council meeting.

“As far as being an intrusion on the park, I can attest to the fact that my boat and other commercial fishing boats bring a great amount of pleasure to the park visitors each summer — a favorite opportunity for them to observe us in action, and many of the tourists go home with photos of us catching Tutka Bay (Lagoon) Hatchery fish,” he said. “It seems like a very compatible use to me.”

Fabich spoke of the China Poot dipnet fishery, sport fishing for reds and pinks in Tutka Bay Lagoon, and other fishing opportunities and pointed to their economic importance to the city.

“The hatchery is responsible for collecting the eggs that eventually end up as red salmon on the tables and in freezers from around Homer and the peninsula,” he said.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.