Fish board denies emergency petition on hatchery permit

The Board of Fisheries declined to take up an emergency petition related to hatchery pink salmon production in Prince William Sound, though members agreed the issue is important to discuss.

In a special meeting Tuesday in Anchorage, the board members discussed seven different emergency petitions related to salmon fisheries across the state. First on the list was a petition from a group of 19 stakeholder groups, including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, asking the Board of Fisheries to block the Valdez Fisheries Development Association from increasing its pink salmon egg take by 20 million eggs this year.

The groups wrote in their petition that the increase in production would risk more of the pinks straying and toughen competition for food in the open ocean, endangering existing wild stocks. The sparking action came from Alaska Department of Fish and Game data showing that Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon strayed into Lower Cook Inlet streams in significant numbers in 2017.

Even though the board members planned to discuss hatchery operations in more depth in the future, that’s not a good reason to deny the petition, the groups wrote.

“The respective obligations of the (Board of Fisheries) and (the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) to wild stock preservation and authorities under the law are unambiguous,” the petition states. “…The promise of a more comprehensive approach in the future does not excuse the respective responsibilities of the (Board of Fisheries) and (Fish and Game) for due diligence today.”

The 20 million egg increase request was actually part of a phase-in for a larger production increase at the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, which the Valdez Fisheries Development Association operates. In March 2014, the group sought an amendment to its permit to increase the egg take from 230 million eggs to 300 million. Fish and Game and the Prince William Sound Regional Planning Team — comprised of citizens, hatchery representatives, fishermen and Fish and Game staff — worked with the hatchery to develop a phased-in approach over about five years.

Scott Kelley, director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries, told the Board of Fisheries members during the Tuesday meeting that Fish and Game staff considered the status of wild pink salmon stocks in the area before moving forward with the permit. Prince William Sound has seen exceptionally good wild pink runs for the last several years, with hatchery fish and wild fish coexisting in the same streams, he said.

“This sort of phased-in approach is fairly common throughout the state,” he said. “Rather than taking big giant leaps forward in any project — not just specifically this one — seeing how those effects manifest themselves in the wild stocks.”

Board member Reed Morisky said he thought the emergency petition was merited because of the concerns about the pink salmon’s impact on wild stocks and on the competition for food in the open ocean. The groups submitted a number of scientific papers with their petition focused on the impacts of increased pink salmon populations on other wild stocks in the open ocean. Morisky also said he saw the emergency in the potential for increases “spillover” of Prince William Sound hatchery fish. Board member Israel Payton said he had concerns about the straying of hatchery fish as well and that the board has policies to follow regarding the prioritization of wild stock protection.

“I do think that it does potentially threaten our wild stocks,” he said.

Salmon naturally stray, though the rates of their doing so vary. Division of Commercial Fisheries Chief Fisheries Scientist Bill Templin told the board members that straying is a natural part of the salmon life cycle and allows them to adapt to changing environments. In recent years, salmon have been documented in streams where they have never been seen before, possibly because the changing climate is now making those streams habitable to them, he said.

“Mostly salmon will return to their natal stream to spawn,” he said. “But a portion of them are always exploring, looking for new places.”

The board is already planning to take up hatchery issues more specifically in an October worksession. Because of that worksession, board member Fritz Johnson said he didn’t want to find an emergency with this particular petition and would wait until the fall.

“I’m not persuaded that we’re faced with an emergency based on what we know here today,” he said.

In the public comments submitted to the board for the meeting, commercial fishermen urged the board not to take any action that would endanger the future of the hatcheries. Hatchery fish contribute significantly to the commercial fisheries catches in Prince William Sound, helping to stabilize the fishery when wild runs are weak, several wrote. In joint comments, the state’s eight private nonprofit hatchery associations — including the Valdez Fisheries Development Association — noted that the topic of ocean carrying capacity is incredibly difficult to isolate for discussion. The group offered some criticism to the papers the petitioning group submitted and asked the board to review the scientific literature before making a decision.

“We recognize this is a dense response, and that your time is limited,” the groups wrote. “The fact is this document only scrapes the surface of the complex issues of ocean carrying capacity and straying. These topics cannot and should not be reduced to sound bites, considering that the foundational research, like most science, has been ongoing for decades, and is anything but simple.”

The board turned down the emergency petition 4-3, with members Payton, Morisky and Orville Huntington voting in favor.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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