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Too many pink salmon in Kachemak Bay?

The head of the Tutka Bay area, to where they want to move hatchery net pens. (Ground Truth Trekking)

HOMER — Tucked into a narrow fjord on the south side of Kachemak Bay is a small lagoon, 700 feet wide, and only a couple thousand feet long. At low tide, a salty trickle connects it to the ocean. At high tide, at the height of the summer, treble hooks fly between a flurry of skiffs as salmon snaggers circle the net pens in the center of the lagoon. Seines scoop up tens of thousands of fish in an attempt to pay for the hatchery, as hatchery operators collect eggs from the fish that swarm the creek. A few weeks later, carcasses rot, eggs incubate and Tutka Lagoon fades back into relative obscurity.

Until this year, that is, when a wave of controversy spilled out through that narrow channel like the 100 million pink salmon they hope to release, flooding across Kachemak Bay State Park to Homer, up Cook Inlet, and down to Juneau, prompting the governor to send a fleet of commissioners to brace against the wave.

On May 15, Nancy Hillstrand drove her skiff across Kachemak Bay, from her home in a Kachemak Bay State Park inholding to the fish-processing plant she runs on the Homer Spit, carrying a heavy purple tote of scientific papers and government reports.

"Some people complain about insomnia," she said, "but when I wake up in the night, I think, 'Yay, now I can read.' " She had two more totes in her office, organized into dog-chewed folders, clipped stacks and neatly labeled binders. She rifled through them, spouting statistics as she pulled up habitat maps from the 1970s, state statutes marked up in highlighter, or Fish and Game reports spattered with dog prints and annotated with columns of math in blue pen, converting fish numbers to biomass or percentages or money.

"(That's) 300,000 pounds of predators they want to release," she said, pointing to one of her calculations — the weight of each tiny fish fry multiplied by more than a 100 million.

On May 15, Nancy Hillstrand made her way across Kachemak Bay, to the fish-processing plant she runs on Homer Spit, carrying a heavy purple tote of scientific papers and government reports. (Ground Truth Trekking)

Disregarding science?

Hillstrand worked in hatcheries for 21 years, and for the past five, she's made it her mission to fight Cook Inlet Aquaculture's plans to expand the Tutka Lagoon Hatchery out into the larger Tutka Bay.

"People see the fry in the harbor and they're so happy. But what are they doing? They're eating. They're eating our fisheries. They're all over this bay, eating and growing. They're just making fish and pumping them out, and they don't bother looking at any of the science.

"What do we want? If we want nothing but pink salmon monoculture in the state of Alaska, great. How easy. But it costs so much."

She left me with her reams of paper as she dashed off to take a shower, conferring with one of her employees about how best to hide the rip in the only set of clean clothes she'd left in Homer. Her fight seemed passionate, but obscure, until I walked into the meeting to find the heads of four state departments in a stuffy room overflowing with around 150 people, and the aggrieved passion of a culture war I never knew was happening.

Improving on nature

"That lagoon is dead," said Bruce Friend, a local resident. "I enjoyed being in that lagoon for more than 30 years. And that is a failed hatchery."

"When these fish are released, they go out and they belong to no one," said Glenn Carroll. "They belong to everyone. Sportfishermen, charter fishermen, commercial fishermen, subsistence fishermen …"

In much of the country, hatcheries were built in an attempt to bring back salmon runs devastated by overfishing and dams. In Alaska, largely free of those problems, hatcheries sought to improve on nature. The great 1964 earthquake raised and lowered chunks of land where salmon once spawned. By the early 1970s, salmon runs had plummeted as part of an ocean cycle no one yet understood.

As part of the state's Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement, and Development Division, Hillstrand was part of a crew that dynamited river channels, put in fish ladders and built hatcheries, until the plummeting oil money cycle led the state to turn over the work to a set of private nonprofit aquaculture associations.

Commercial fishermen pay a 2 percent tax to their local aquaculture association to fund part of hatchery operations. Buy most hatchery funding comes from fish: Hatcheries catch and sell their own returning salmon. The remainder is funded by state loans and grants.

Improving on nature remains the goal. Alaska hatcheries are intended for supplemental production. They release 1.6 billion salmon into the ocean surrounding Alaska every year, with the goal of creating more fish than nature would ever provide. Some 39 percent of them are pink salmon swimming into Prince William Sound — the biggest hatchery program in the entire North Pacific. In 2015, hatchery salmon added $79 million to the value of commercial fisheries there.

By contrast, Cook Inlet Aquaculture released just 19 million fry last year, in Cook Inlet and Resurrection Bay. Just 300,000 returning fish were harvested. Over the past several years, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, or CIAA, has harvested and sold most of those fish, but has failed to make enough money to run their $5 million per year operation. Cook Inlet Aquaculture is raising salmon, worth $7 each, for $16 per fish.

Preparing salmon snagged in Tutka Bay. (Ground Truth Trekking)

Some are red salmon. Most are pinks. Sportfishermen flock to Tutka Lagoon to snag the reds. Commercial fishermen get a better price for them. But as babies, those red salmon were piped into a boat, then piped into a truck, then driven to another hatchery to be raised and fed for a year, only for the whole process to be reversed before they could be released into the sea. Higher-value salmon — kings, reds and silvers — are all expensive to raise, so pink and chum salmon are a better deal for hatchery operators, so they make up 90 percent of hatchery fish statewide. Last year, hatchery pink salmon earned hatchery operators $5 million and commercial fishermen $8 million, nearly all of that in Prince William Sound.

Warming lagoon

Brent Johnson, president of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture board, thinks lower Cook Inlet could be a lot more like Prince William Sound.

"We need to move out of that lagoon," he explained. "It was successful at first. We got 15-18 percent of the fish returning and the seiners benefited tremendously. But then farmed fish took off big (internationally, it remains illegal in Alaska), and the price of pinks dropped. Now with global warming, it gets too warm in that lagoon, and the fish aren't as healthy."

Cook Inlet Aquaculture wants to move its pens from the small, shallow lagoon to the remote head of Tutka Bay for three months a year, releasing 10 times more pink salmon fry than normal. Their decades-old permit has always allowed more fry than they usually handle, and state agencies approved the move in January.

People look for fish in Tutka Lagoon, near the current hatchery pens. (Ground Truth Trekking)

Seiners benefit

Lower Cook Inlet is an almost unnoticeable blip in the universe of Alaska salmon — in wild fish abundance, in number of fishermen, in the hatchery program. But it's not an unnoticeable place.

The existing hatchery is in Kachemak Bay State Park. The expansion would be in a more remote part of Kachemak Bay State Park. In the decades since the first eggs were collected, the Homer population has skyrocketed, tourists have multiplied and the three hours of testimony this May came down as a battle between tourism and commercial fishing.

"The park is supposed to be for all people," one fisherman railed, "not just a select group of people who go cruise around in kayaks!"

I usually needed no more than the first five words to determine each speaker's opinion. "I am a recreational user …" or

"I am a seiner …"

If Cook Inlet Aquaculture boosts its numbers, only a few dozen people will catch those fish. In Cook Inlet last year, 468 permit holders set drift gillnets for salmon in the upper inlet, 528 fished with setnets from shore, and only 19 ran seine boats. The only practical place to put new salmon is tucked into a fjord where the hatchery can easily catch them to pay for its own operations, and the fish can be separated from other wild stocks. In those fjords, only the seiners can catch them.

Nineteen people can't build a controversy. But Prince William Sound fishermen were at the Homer meeting, too. Some came from even farther. "And many of them are here today," said Tim Moore, chairman of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., "because they see this as a threat. And it's on a statewide level. Not just in this park.

"These hatcheries have to maintain flexibility. We've already heard about changes in the environment. They're happening. And if these hatchery associations can't be flexible in some of their plans, then certain environmental issues will decrease their production."

Flowing through everyone's words was a story of environmental change, a short-hand recounting of all that had died here. Dungeness, Tanner crabs, and shrimp, which people once made a living on. Razor clams they used to dig by the thousands. Murres and sea stars, washing up or melting along the shore.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture insists that if it can't move out of that shallow warm lagoon, it will have to close the hatchery. Change for everyone, either way.

More Prince William Sound pinks

What do we know about hatcheries?

Ninety percent of wild-spawned eggs die before they become fry. Ninety percent of hatchery eggs survive.

If we send more fish into the world, we get more fish back. Prince William Sound sees more pink salmon than ever, and two-thirds of them swim back to the hatcheries. It's hard to tease out nature from nurture. Fish stocks across the region were booming just as the hatcheries ramped up in the 1980s. From 1988 to 2013, average pink salmon harvests in Prince William Sound were 10 times larger than 1960 to 1976 harvests. In the rest of the state, they were only three times larger, despite the fact that the wild runs grew much more in areas with fewer hatcheries. Some scientists think that hatchery fish depressed the wild runs in Prince William Sound, replacing some of the growth that would have happened otherwise. Either way, hatchery fish plus wild fish adds up to more total fish.

Salmon run in the creek at the head of Tutka Bay. (Ground Truth Trekking)

"People keep talking about carrying capacity," said one aquaculture board member. "But the fry are out in two weeks and hardly eat anything. The carrying capacity is in the ocean."

We get more fish back, and someone else gets fewer. The ocean is not an infinite fattening pen. It is teeming with millions of metric tons of salmon from across the North Pacific, competing with each other and everything else. Pink salmon dominate. During years when large runs of Asian pinks flood the ocean, Bristol Bay sockeyes don't grow as well. North American pinks compete with sockeyes from Canada.

Twenty-seven percent of that ocean throng is hatchery chums, from Japan, Russia and Southeast Alaska. Four percent is hatchery pinks, largely from Prince William Sound and Kodiak. If we send more fish into the world, we grab a larger share of the ocean's finite productivity.

When salmon stray

But if we send more fish into the world, do we know where they will return? Salmon, especially pink salmon, can easily stray from the streams of their birth. Some 10 percent of pinks spawning in Prince William Sound rivers are wandering hatchery fish. In the southwestern portion of the sound, it can be 30, 50, even 90 percent of the fish in some streams.

Fish can stray farther than we imagined, too. In 2014, some 44 percent of the fish in lower Cook Inlet streams came from hatcheries; in 2015, 23 percent of them did. These were Tutka hatchery fish, and Port Graham hatchery fish, but they were also Prince William Sound hatchery fish. Strays from Prince William Sound wander across the entire Kenai Fjords, swim up into Kachemak Bay, and spawn even in Barbara Creek, just a few miles from my house. In a sample from 2014, some 94 percent of the fish in that creek were hatchery fish, from all four hatcheries in Prince William Sound, and both of the hatcheries in Cook Inlet. This is neither new, nor a fluke. Nearly two decades ago, researchers in Southeast Alaska found Prince William Sound hatchery salmon in streams up to 590 miles away.

State policy tries to account for the short-distance strays, requiring hatcheries to use nearby fish stocks. The Tutka hatchery pink salmon came from the lagoon's own creek.

However, there is only one natural red salmon run in the Kachemak Bay area, and Augie Kvasnikoff, a Nanwalek fisherman, is convinced that Cook Inlet Aquaculture has decimated it with their egg takes.

"There was one year less than 5,000 salmon had returned to our lake, and they still went and did an egg take. They were taking stock from our river, and they were plugging it in to other rivers. There was no benefit to our community. As a commercial fisherman, I haven't been able to fish for the last five years because of the low numbers of salmon returning."

Now he's worried that the hatchery pinks in Port Graham Bay will outcompete the struggling local reds. Last year, Nanwalek refused to grant Cook Inlet Aquaculture permission to return to their land.

Prince William Sound's hatchery program is everybody's hatchery program. From the fishermen running their seine boats, to their employees and families, to the businesses their money supports, to the strays in nearby creeks and distant rivers, to the salmon competing in the ocean, to the fishermen in distant regions and countries that would catch those competitors. Cook Inlet's program could become everyone's as well.

"I don't know how many times people said I'm not against commercial fishermen, yet they spend their whole time trying to restrict commercial fishermen," said fisherman David Martin. "Most of your fish that are caught in Kachemak Bay are enhanced fish."

"It is the most pristine part of the park," one man lamented. "Thousands and thousands of people and there's no other place left to take them in the park. No place that's pristine."

Mount Iliamna looms above a small fishing boat on Kachemak Bay. (Ground Truth Trekking)

Everybody's involved

Alaska is a small state populationwise, and economic interest groups quickly pull apart into personal relationships. One commenter at the meeting noted that Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten's sons were both Cook Inlet seiners, as Cotten used to be himself.

It's hard not to know someone involved, or maybe lots of someones. Almost everyone I know has snagged red salmon swimming to the hatchery. A good friend of mine, who I've worked to build a local trail with, stood up to testify against the project. That trail begins where the net pens would move.

After three cramped hours, everyone streamed out into the sunny evening, most finding their way back to the people holding the views they'd come in with. A few strayed to argue with their opponents. A few strayed to hug them. The rest nodded awkwardly, dispersing into the evening.

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia. She's the author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski," the children's book "My Coyote Nose and Ptarmigan Toes" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." Her next book, "Mud Flats and Fish Camps: 800 Miles around Alaska's Cook Inlet," was released earlier this year. You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.

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