The Valdez Fisheries Development Association can move ahead with its plan to increase its pink salmon production after the Alaska Board of Fisheries rejected an emergency petition from groups led by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association who oppose the plan.
The seven-member board ultimately decided the issue does not constitute an emergency on a 4-3 vote during a Tuesday afternoon meeting in Anchorage. Board members Israel Payton of Wasilla, Reed Morisky of Fairbanks and Orville Huntington of Huslia voted in favor of the petition meeting emergency criteria for consideration.
Those voting against were chair John Jensen of Petersburg, Alan Cain of Anchorage, Robert Ruffner of Soldotna and Fritz Johnson of Dillingham.
The petition was signed by KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease and 18 individuals representing Lower Cook Inlet commercial fishing interests, the Chitina Dipnetters Association, the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee, among others.
It urged the board to reverse a previously approved increase of 20 million pink salmon eggs by the Valdez Fisheries Development Association this year for expanding future hatchery-produced harvests.
KRSA first submitted the petition May 1. The first version was signed by nine sport and personal use fishing groups, sans the Lower Cook Inlet commercial representatives. The board subsequently voted to a 3-3 tie on the issue during a May 14 teleconference meeting.
The petition alleges that increasing the number of hatchery produced salmon poses a threat to wild salmon stocks as the hatchery fish compete with wild salmon for food while they are collectively rearing in the ocean. It highlights that a sampling study found up to 70 percent of pink salmon returning to some small Lower Cook Inlet streams in 2017 were found to be from Prince William Sound hatchery stocks.
"In addition to the straying issues of PWS hatchery-origin pink salmon observed in Lower Cook Inlet, recent scientific publications (building on past published reports and internal Alaska Department of Fish and Game reviews) have provided cause for great concern over the biological impacts associated with continued release of very large numbers of hatchery salmon into the North Pacific Ocean, including the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska," the petition states.
Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten wrote to a letter to Gease on June 14 in which he denied the petition via authority delegated to him by the Board of Fisheries, but noted two board members had already requested a special meeting to discuss the matter.
Fish and Game officials as well as board chair Jensen said at the Tuesday meeting that emergency findings are rare; there must be an unforeseen event that threatens a resource or an instance where action would lead to a loss of harvest opportunity that couldn't be had in the future.
"I don't think taking eggs is an emergency," Jensen said.
Gease said in an interview that the state has policies in place that make it illegal to transport salmon between regions, but the department is passively allowing it to happen by approving increased hatchery production when the fish are known to stray.
"It seemingly now is OK that there is no standard for hatchery fish straying," Gease said.
Valdez Fisheries Development Association leaders could not immediately be reached for comment in time for this story.
Morisky said he feels instances where 70 percent of the fish spawning in a stream have strayed from hatchery stocks constitutes an emergency and allowing an egg take that will lead to more hatchery fish could threaten wild salmon stocks, the health of which Fish and Game is required to prioritize above other salmon.
Payton said the potential issue of hatchery fish competing with wild salmon for food in the ocean is of particular concern to him.
"I do think there is a potential threat to the wild stock resource here," Payton said.
Fish and Game Commercial Fisheries Division Director Scott Kelley said the Valdez-area hatcheries originally wanted to take an additional 70 million eggs and increase the total egg take to 300 million from 230 million, but the department agreed to a phased approach of increases in 20 million-egg increments in 2016 and 2018.
It's an approach that is commonly used with hatcheries across the state, according to Kelley.
"That's why we ease in — test the waters, literally," he said.
Kelley noted recent wild stock returns of pink salmon to Prince William sound in 2013 and 2015 — pinks typically return in two-year high and low abundance cycles — were among the most prolific on record.
Board member Johnson of Dillingham said the egg take is supposed to happen in three days, adding the board is already scheduled to take up hatchery issues during an October 15-16 work session in Anchorage.
It was also emphasized at the meeting that the department, in conjunction with hatchery groups, is working on a long-term study to flesh out theories of how hatchery salmon from Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska do or don't impact wild fish stocks.
Cain, of Anchorage, said the issues of how hatchery salmon interact with wild salmon are very important but the petition didn't meet the board's threshold for an emergency.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at email@example.com.