Board of Fisheries to reconvene committee on hatcheries
For the first time in about a decade, the Board of Fisheries will reconvene its committee focused on the state’s salmon hatcheries.
The Hatchery Committee — which actually consists of all the members of the board — is set to meet March 8, the day before the board begins its Statewide Finfish and Supplemental Issues meeting in Anchorage at the Sheraton Hotel from March 9-12. Rather than making regulatory policies, the committee meeting will focus on receiving reports from staff and hearing from the public on hatchery issues.
Glenn Haight, the board’s executive director, said the committee will base its activities on a joint protocol on hatcheries developed in 2002.
“The agenda shows that the department will provide a number of reports and then they were just going to open discussions not unlike Committee of the Whole,” he said. “It’s not clear to me what will come out of it. It’s an information session.”
The Joint Protocol on Salmon Enhancement, signed in 2002 by the chairman of the Board of Fisheries and the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, outlines the authorities of the department and the board and outlines the board’s intention to hold meetings “on a regular basis wherein the department will update the board and the public on management, production and research relating to Alaska’s salmon enhancement program.”
Most hatcheries in the state are run by private nonprofit organizations, funded in part by taxes paid by commercial fishermen as well as cost recovery revenue from harvests; the state also runs two sportfish hatcheries in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Their permits for egg-takes and salmon releases are administered by the state and vetted through the Regional Planning Team process. The board has the authority to regulate harvest on those returning salmon and to modify hatchery permits relating to the source and the number of eggs harvested.
Sam Rabung, the director of Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries and the former section chief for the division’s Statewide Aquaculture, Permitting and Planning office, said the committee met annually until 2008 or so.
“Quite frankly, I think the board at that time just lost interest because there was nothing new or exciting happening,” he said. “In the 10 years that went by, there wasn’t an opportunity for the public to receive information, and because that information wasn’t being made available in public formats, it kind of created an information vacuum.”
In a series of meetings in 2018, the board considered petitions and Agenda Change Requests from the public raising concerns about hatchery production — particularly about pink salmon production in Prince William Sound.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a Soldotna-based organization which advocates for sport anglers, connected its concern to an ADFG analysis showing that unexpectedly large numbers of hatchery-origin Prince William Sound pink salmon were straying into streams in Lower Cook Inlet in 2016 and 2017.
The organization submitted a number of scientific papers connecting pink salmon abundance in the Gulf of Alaska to concerns about the Gulf’s carrying capacity for fish as well.
Hatchery representatives and commercial fishermen countered these papers, submitting their own review saying many of the studies were flawed or incomplete, and asking the board to have a broader discussion on hatcheries before modifying permits or capping production. Division of Commercial Fisheries Chief Fisheries Scientist for salmon Bill Templin presented an analysis of the papers as well, saying many of the papers either had flaws or lacked context.
The board members repeatedly voted down the requests to cap hatchery production or modify current hatchery permits, but agreed to reconvene the committee on hatcheries to open up the opportunity for more public forum on hatchery production and impacts.
Hatcheries are important to many commercial fishing communities, enhancing the salmon returns to many areas. The cities of Juneau, Valdez and Craig all submitted letters in support of hatchery programs in the state, as well as a number of Native corporations and commercial fishermen in various regions.
The Afognak Native Corp. submitted comments for the meeting supporting hatcheries and the reconvening of the committee, calling the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association’s work “critical contributions.”
“We specifically request that the State support the convening of the Salmon Hatcheries Committee Meeting and Joint Protocol on Salmon Enhancement,” executive director Alisha Drabek wrote in the letter. “This Joint Protocol is particularly essential as it provides a forum for open discussion on hatchery topics to improve dialogue and transparency between the Board of Fisheries, ADF&G, fisheries stakeholders, and the public to generate statewide perspectives on issues associated with hatchery production of salmon.”
Conservation and sportfishing groups submitted comments asking the board to take action with concerns about the effect of pink salmon on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Alaska. The Homer-based Kachemak Bay Conservation Society criticized Templin’s analysis of the scientific papers on the effects of pink salmon on the Gulf in its comment, saying ADFG staff menbers are not able to act in an unbiased manner on hatcheries. The group calls for an independent Hatchery Impacts Advisory Group to advise the board’s Hatchery Committee.
“An independent Hatchery Impacts Science Advisory Group must be formed to determine whether release sized need to be limited by the board and/or sanctuaries for significant wild stocks need to be created,” wrote Kachemak Bay Conservation Society board president Roberta Highland in the letter.
The Hatchery Committee is scheduled to meet on Friday, March 8, starting at 8:30 a.m., followed by the Statewide and Supplemental Finfish meeting starting Saturday at 8:30 a.m.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].