Tutka Bay net pens come loose, now back in lagoon

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association pink salmon rearing net pens placed at the head of Tutka Bay — but in an area not allowed by Alaska State Parks — last week got an unintended assist from a spring storm toward the permitted location. Following the incident, on Monday afternoon, May 14, CIAA moved its two net pens into Tutka Bay Lagoon, where CIAA has a hatchery, resolving for now a technical permit violation.

According to a press release on May 11 from CIAA, last Thursday afternoon, May 10, mariners with Ninilchik Charters found two CIAA net pens that had become unmoored from their location at the head of Tutka Bay. CIAA crews went to the scene and found the pens were dragging anchors and had moved from the head of Tutka Bay.

A series of strong winds last week stirred up Kachemak Bay, whipping waters into whitecaps and roaring down Tutka Bay.

“What it appears is the anchors lost their hold on the bottom and started to drift without incident,” said CIAA executive director Gary Fandrei. “It’s embarrassing more than anything else.”

No equipment was damaged and about 2 million fry in the net pens survived the trip. With favorable tide conditions on Monday, CIAA moved the pens into the lagoon where it already has permission to put net pens.

Under the terms of a permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Alaska State Parks, CIAA sought to put up to 10 net pens in Tutka Bay. The net pens are part of CIAA’s Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery program. In the past salmon have been reared in the net pens there and released. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommended putting the net pens at the head of Tutka Bay near a fresh water source to increase the chances of adult salmon returning to Tutka Bay.

“Adult pink salmon tend to show higher levels of fidelity to natal release sites that are in close association with significant freshwater outflows,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game area finfish biologist Glenn Hollowell wrote in an email. “Having salmon return precisely to where they were released results in an increased harvest for users, and reduces the numbers of fish that stray to other places.”

On April 26, CIAA put the net pens at the head of Tutka Bay and near a waterfall. Hollowell said in April a regional planning team of three CIAA board of director members and three ADF&G staff approved language in the Annual Management Plan, or AMP at the head of Tutka Bay.

However, in its DNR permit, as well as permits for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, specified a location closer to Tutka Bay Lagoon. Fandrei said he didn’t know why someone with CIAA entered those coordinates rather than a location at the head of Tutka Bay. Following the ADF&G recommendations that the net pens be near a freshwater source at the head of Tutka Bay, CIAA planned to change the location on the permit. That never happened.

“Where that fell apart, I’m not entirely sure,” Fandrei said.

Complicating matters, the DNR permit had a typographical error, writing latitude as 59.25’ 59.39” north instead of 59° 25’ 59.39” north — the correct location on the Corps of Engineers permit. Latitude and longitude can be expressed as decimal coordinates, for eample, 59.4330556 degrees north.

There was a similar error for longitude.

Fandrei said CIAA crews putting in the net pens couldn’t understand the erroneous coordinates in the DNR permit and put the pens where they thought they should be — the head of Tutka Bay location.

The Tutka Bay net pens have been controversial with some park users, with water taxi and tour operators complaining the head of the bay location would mar views in a relatively undisturbed part of Kachemak Bay State Park. The permit allowed the net pens from April 1 to June 30, but last week Fandrei said CIAA intended to release the fry before the end of May and the traditional start of the summer tourist season. Park rangers received complaints that the net pens were not in the permitted location.

“Until we had that resolved, we were reluctant to move the pens,” Fandrei said. “It was going to be right with one or the other, and we wanted to be sure we were on the same page.”

On May 7, it appeared CIAA and DNR would resolve the issue by amending its permit to change the location to the head of Tutka Bay site recommended by ADF&G. On May 8, though, DNR said CIAA would have to move its pens. CIAA was in the process of waiting for a good tide to move its pens when storm winds started the process for them.

For now and for this season, CIAA will leave the pens in Tutka Bay Lagoon. Now in the final year of a 3-year permit — and the only year the net pens actually were put in Tutka Bay — CIAA will have to start the permit process again if it wants to try placing net pens outside the lagoon.

“CIAA’s board of directors will be reviewing this operation to determine a coordinated strategy for going forward with net pen placement in future years,” it said in a press release last Friday.

Hollowell said he suspects some of the 2 million pink salmon fry will return to the head of Tutka Bay and some to the lagoon. He estimated about 63,000 adults would return to the head of the bay and about 1.4 million back at the lagoon.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.