HB 52 ‘cures’ land disposal issue of Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery

HB 52 would take hatchery out of Kachemak State Park and add also lands to park.

At an online meeting held on Oct. 28 by the Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation, much of the discussion focused on how House Bill 52 would add almost 270 acres of state land on the north shore of the bay to Kachemak Bay State Park. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, filed HB 52 at the start this year of the current two-year legislature. In that meeting, Vance also discussed why she said she thought HB 52 was needed to allow the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery to continue.

In the Nov. 4 issue, the Homer News looked at the park side of HB 52. This week, the Homer News considers the hatchery side of the bill.

HB 52 would do two things: it would move into the state park three parcels now classified as general state lands and it would move out of the state park about 125 acres around the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery.

Alaska State Parks already intends to bring two parcels, called Areas B and C in the bill, into state park management, Jack Blackwell, Superintendent of Parks for the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound, said at last month’s meeting. The Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park also has applied for an Interagency Land Management Agreement, or ILMA, to put under parks management what’s called Area A in HB 52. If the parcels come under parks management, in effect all the rules and regulations that apply to state parks would apply to those areas. If HB 52 doesn’t pass, the parcels still could come under state parks management through administrative action.

In response to a question by Vance as to the advantage of adding those parcels to Kachemak Bay State Park, Blackwell said, “Really, it’s more of a boundary clean up and clarification. I think it adds maybe a greater element of protection to the property, but really, there’s deed restrictions and conservation easements on those properties (parcels B and C).”

Moving the hatchery out of the state park addresses a legal and a management plan issue. According to a briefing paper accompanying HB 52, when the Alaska Legislature created Kachemak Bay State Park in 1970, it did so “in order to protect and preserve this land and water for its unique and exceptional scenic value.” As a legislatively designated land, the executive branch cannot dispose of any real property interest. That can only be done by an act of the Legislature.

The briefing paper discusses land disposal case law, and concludes that according to court decisions over the past 20 years, an operating agreement with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association “suggests a lease — and thus a disposal — of these lands.” After signing a a 20-year agreement in 1991 with CIAA to operate the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, ADF&G renewed that agreement for another 20 years in 2011. ADF&G built the hatchery in 1978.

Acknowledging this disposal issue, a draft management plan revision for the Kachemak Bay State Park that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources intends to adopt says the hatchery is incompatible with the state park. That plan also says that at the end of its operating agreement in 2031, the hatchery would close and the facilities would remain state property, perhaps for use as an educational center.

“What my bill does is cure the legal land issue,” Vance said at the Oct. 28 meeting.

Although HB 52 puts into the state park 270 acres and takes out 125 acres, Vance said it is not a land swap.

“It is not my intent to shrink the size of the park but maintain the integrity of the park,” she said.

The history of CIAA’s involvement with the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery goes back to 1991, when it entered into an agreement with ADF&G to operate the hatchery. It renewed that agreement in 2011. CIAA operates several hatcheries, including one at Trail Lake near Seward and another in Port Graham. Although “aquaculture” is in its name, CIAA does not do ocean ranching or raise salmon to adulthood.

Using eggs and milt from salmon, pinks are raised to the fry and smolt stages, about four to eight weeks. They are released at about .25 grams after they have imprinted on the waters of the lagoon area, said Dean Day, executive director of CIAA.

Imprinting is how salmon fry identify their home waters. Wild salmon imprint on the streams where they spawn. When they reach adulthood, salmon return to the area of imprinting.

The Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery raises and releases pink salmon. At the Trail River Hatchery, CIAA raises sockeye or red salmon, and trucks them when at the smolt stage to Homer and then by boat to Tutka Bay Lagoon. There the reds are put in net pens for three or four weeks, again to imprint in the area. Some reds get released while others are flown to China Poot Lake and released. When those reds reach adulthood, they swim into China Poot Bay. China Poot Bay supports a popular personal use dipnet fishery.

Other hatchery reds get caught in Kachemak Bay by commercial or sport fishermen. Because they have imprinted on Tutka Bay Lagoon, the reds return there, too. The hatchery catches reds to harvest eggs and milt, and that is taken to the Trail River Hatchery to be raised to smolt stage, continuing the cycle. Hatchery-raised pinks also return to Tutka Bay Lagoon.

CIAA pays for its costs through taxes on commercial fishermen as well as cost-recovery fisheries. One cost-recovery salmon fishery is done in Tutka Bay that targets pinks, but some reds that overlap the pink fishery also get caught.

Since 1992, CIAA has taken out about $16 million in loans spread out among all its operations, some of that for the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, Day said. Some loans also were used to renovate the Port Graham hatchery.

At the Oct. 28 meeting, several people criticized the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. Nancy Hillstrand said the state should stick to the draft management plan for Kachemak Bay State Park. That’s the cure for the legal issue, she said.

“It cures this because it serves all the people of Alaska,” Hillstrand said. Removing the hatchery from the state park doesn’t do that, she added. “I don’t see any benefit to the state of Alaska for the highest and best use.”

That’s a point Penelope Haas of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society also made.

“To me, what we’re talking about here is the Alaska Constitution, Article 8, which tells us how we’re supposed to manage public resources,” she said. “…It tells you you’re supposed to manage it for the benefit of the people.”

Haas said she researched previous land swaps where park land was moved back into general state land status. That happened with establishing the route of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, she said. There the argument could be made that the pipeline benefited all Alaskans through oil revenues.

That test should be applied to HB 52, Haas said.

“I feel like (Vance) must make this argument, that ultimately cutting this out of the park must serve Alaskans,” Haas said. “… I feel like that’s a tough argument to make. … (Vance) makes the assumption it’s for the benefit of the Alaskan people. It’s a hatchery. It’s for commercial fishermen.”

At the Oct. 28 meeting, Vance said, “I’m a supporter of the hatchery and of Kachemak Bay State Park.”

Haas also said that HB 52 should assess the value of park land removed and park land added. At the Oct. 28 meeting, Haas asked Vance if she would consider adding more state land to parks, but Vance said she wanted to focus on Kachemak Bay State Park.

If the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery closed, that could affect the red salmon fishery at China Poot Bay and in Kachemak Bay, Day said. CIAA tried to transfer the red salmon operation to Port Graham in 2015, but that wasn’t successful, he said.

“We need a large volume of water to do that,” Day said “We were not able to achieve that.”

That doesn’t mean the red salmon imprinting and egg and smolt collecting couldn’t be done elsewhere.

“I wouldn’t say there are no alternatives,” Day said. “I would say no alternatives have yet to be found. One implies we’ve given up. The other is we continue to search.”

Closing the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery also would affect CIAA’s ability to finance other operations and make payments on loans, Day said.

“It would take away a pretty significant source of revenue, the basis of which was to get some of the loans in the first place,” he said.

Taking the hatchery and the 125 surrounding acres wouldn’t impede recreational use, just as the hatchery now doesn’t do so, Day said. Several trails pass through the hatchery area, and people still could use those trails.

“None of this denies or limits any kind of access to Tutka Bay Lagoon at all,” Day said. “… People are over there all the time. It (HB 52) doesn’t change anything from how it’s operated in the past.”

At the start of the Oct. 28 meeting, Blackwell tried to keep discussion focused on the Cottonwood-Eastland side of HB 52.

“We’re not here to talk about hatcheries,” he said. “…This discussion is not about the merits of fish hatcheries.”

Day said that’s true of HB 52, too.

“There’s a discussion of should Tutka exist,” he said. “HB 52 is not part of that. It’s to cure the disposal issue.”

In response to a question by Robert Archibald about if HB 52 could be revised to move the 125 acres of the hatchery back into the state park should the hatchery fail or go bankrupt, Vance said she wasn’t willing to do that.

“My concern with that is we cannot tie the hands of future legislators,” she said.

Archibald also asked if she would consider adding a fiscal note to HB 52 to fund Cottonwood-Eastland improvements. Vance said that might be detrimental to the passage of the bill. Vance did say she would entertain the idea of splitting HB 52 into two companion bills that would consider the Cottonwood-Eastland park additions separate from the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery.

HB 52 will be taken up when the Alaska Legislature meets again for its regular session in January. Vance said it has the potential to move out of the House Resources Committee and to the House floor.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

A map of Kachemak Bay State Park shows proposed land additions A, B and C in House Bill 52 and the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. (Map courtesy of Alaska State Parks)

A map of Kachemak Bay State Park shows proposed land additions A, B and C in House Bill 52 and the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. (Map courtesy of Alaska State Parks)

Map courtesy of Alaska State Parks 
A map of Kachemak Bay State Park shows proposed land additions A, B and C in House Bill 52 and the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery.

Map courtesy of Alaska State Parks A map of Kachemak Bay State Park shows proposed land additions A, B and C in House Bill 52 and the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery.