Park users, commercial fishermen clash over Tutka Bay net pens

The debate over whether a Cook Inlet hatchery operator can move some net pens out into a Homer-area bay is tangled up with the future of the tourism industry and commercial fishing in Lower Cook Inlet.

A warm, sunny evening didn’t dissuade people from flocking to a listening session held at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center in Homer on Monday to voice their support or concerns about the net pens. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, which operates a hatchery in Tutka Bay for pink salmon, has been trying to rebuild a broodstock and regular return in the bay for the last several years after reopening the previously mothballed facility.

Once the fish begin returning regularly, the organization can either harvest them itself and sell them to a processor to recoup costs, or if there are more fish beyond the organization’s cost needs, the fish become available for commercial harvest. Commercial fishermen fund the state’s hatchery organizations through a 2-percent tax levy, and once the fish are released from the a- quaculture facilities, they become common property — out in the ocean and returning to other streams, they are harvested by all users.

CIAA applied for a permit in 2013 to move the net pens into the head of Tutka Bay, out of Tutka Bay Lagoon, where it currently operates them. The nets would be there temporarily, from March through June, before the organization releases the approximately 100 million pink salmon fry. After Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack approved the permit in January for a two-year period, residents of Tutka Bay and commercial tour operators objected, saying the net pens would ruin the view.

On Monday, a crowd of mixed recreational users, tour operators, conservationists and commercial fishermen — and some people who overlapped into multiple user groups — let Mack and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten know how they felt.

Select people in the crowd clapped after someone made their side’s point throughout a nearly 2 1/2-hour meeting, and though many opponents said they didn’t oppose commercial fishing and many commercial fishermen said they didn’t oppose recreation, the disagreements were tense.

Mack said the commissioners and state employees there — which included staff from the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Division of Mining, Land and Water, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation as well as Gov. Bill Walker’s advisor John Hendrix — planned to just listen to people’s concerns and answer questions.

“We actually at one point ended up in the governor’s office in Juneau … and he basically directed us to come here,” Mack said at the meeting.

Much of the debate circulated around what the proper use of Kachemak Bay State Park should be. Since the park was established, it has grown significantly in use by tourists, who come for the mountain hiking, kayaking, fishing, camping and wilderness lodges along the scenic bays, among other activities.

Opponents of the net pens said the operation would ruin the view and negatively impact the valuable tourism industry.

Mako Haggerty, speaking for the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizens Advisory Board, said the members opposed the net pens but were frustrated at being ignored. The park provides a wilderness area for tourists and the pens would interrupt that, he said. At a certain point, the environment has to come before industry development, he said.

“More is not always better,” he said. “I absolutely feel like putting another 100 million mouths in the bay at the head of Tutka is too much, same as bringing in cruise ships to this bay is too much.”

Conservationists said they were concerned about the negative ecological effects of the net pens as well. In states and countries that authorize finfish farming — which Alaska permanently banned in the 1990s — net pens have produced waste water from the tightly penned fish.

Aquaculture pens, which hold fry temporarily for imprinting before release, are different than fish farming pens, where salmon are fed and kept their whole lives through harvest.

The Kachemak Bay Conservation Society opposed the net pens because of the wastewater concern and concerns for wild stocks. Roberta Highland, the president of the society’s board, said at the meeting that the members were concerned about the lack of baseline data for water quality and wanted to see more thorough science before the nets are moved.

Highland cited the loss of species that historically populated Kachemak Bay, such as Tanner crab and butter clams, as signs that the environment is changing and conservation should come first.

“I hate to be in a room where I’m disagreeing with fisheries people,” she said. “However, there comes a time when the environment comes first, and there’s been a lot of changes. It’s very sad. There’s been a lot of changes in the last 20 years … we’ve got a lot of things going on. We have to be very careful. We’ve got a beautiful thing here.”

On the other side of the debate, commercial fishermen argued that the aquaculture association is not adding any additional fish with the net pens — the facility has been permitted for 125 million pink salmon fry since the 1970s — and that the park was designed for all users, not just recreation. Halibut Cove resident and former legislator Clem Tillion, who drafted the original plan for the park, attended the meeting and said he supported the net pens as a way to expand commercial fishing.

“I worked in Yosemite Park. I didn’t want to see a park that had a bunch of cabins for rent in there,” he said. “I wanted to leave a bunch of places out where people could privately own. I also wanted to make sure that people in Seldovia and now Homer had a place to hunt and fish without bumping into ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”

CIAA board president Brent Johnson said at the meeting that the fish benefit all the users. The facility was closed in 2005 because of low pink salmon prices, making the hatchery uneconomical, but now the pink prices are back up so the organization is trying to get it going again.

CIAA prioritizes the preservation of wild stocks and carefully monitors to make sure their programs aren’t impacting wild stocks, he said. While the hatchery program is introducing fish into areas that wouldn’t normally have them, they also become part of the ecosystem because they become food for other fish as well.

“Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association is very attached to the environment,” he said. “We’re all about wild salmon. We don’t impact wild salmon — that’s one of our goals, our missions. I thought it was interesting to know that every time man does something, it isn’t automatically bad… when is enough enough? Enough is enough when it screws things up, when things start going bad. That’s not the case with the Tutka Bay hatchery.”

CIAA Executive Director Gary Fandrei said the organization does not plan to move the net pens this year, as the operation still has pending permits and further discussion. The net pens require multiple permits from different agencies — the one from the Department of Natural Resources lasts two years, and CIAA also needed clearance for a Clean Water Act permit from the Environmental Protection Agency for the pens.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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