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Business/Economy

Laine Welch: Quantifying the hatchery effect on Alaska fisheries

  • Author: Laine Welch
  • Updated: June 27, 2016
  • Published April 25, 2015

Each year more than one-third of all the salmon caught in Alaska begin their lives in a hatchery.

There are 31 hatchery facilities in Alaska: 15 privately owned, 11 state owned, two federal research facilities, one tribal hatchery at Metlakatla and two state-owned sport fish hatcheries.

Alaska's hatchery program is very different from fish farming, where salmon are crammed tightly into net pens until they're ready for market. All salmon born in Alaska's hatcheries come from wild brood stock, and are released as fingerlings to the sea. When those fish return home, they make a huge contribution to the catch.

According to the annual Salmon Enhancement Report by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 58 million hatchery salmon were caught in the common property salmon fishery last year. That equated to 34 percent of Alaska's 157 million fish harvest, with a dockside value of $113 million.

The breakdown by species: 56 percent chums, 47 percent pinks, 23 percent coho, 12 percent Chinook and 5 percent of the sockeye were hatchery starts.

Prince William Sound fishermen have the highest hatchery fish catches. Last year, 45 million salmon returned to the five hatcheries there, accounting for 87 percent of the total harvest. Ninety-three percent of the fish were pinks and 68 percent were chums. In all, the Sound's hatchery catch added up to 62 percent of the total with a dockside value of $64 million.

It's a different story in Southeast Alaska, where 95 percent of the pinks are from wild production and 85 percent of the chums are hatchery starts.

"Southeast has the largest pink production in the state of Alaska," said Steve Reifenstuhl, general manager at Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture at Sitka.

Coho salmon returned in record numbers (1.6 million) last summer to the region's 21 hatcheries and accounted for 27 percent of the coho catch.

In all, hatchery salmon contributed 12 percent to the Panhandle harvest and $28 million, 26 percent of salmon fishermen's earnings.

Reifenstuhl said he believes the hatchery programs in both Southeast and Prince William Sound are not likely to grow much more.

"We have utilized the water sources we've been able to find and it's not easy to locate a new hatchery at all,' he said. "I think we are getting to the point where we are not going to have major increases in production."

Kodiak ranks third in terms of Alaska hatchery production. Two facilities accounted for 41 percent of the Island's total salmon take last summer, mostly pinks and chums. The hatchery catch value was $10 million, 22 percent of the Kodiak total.

At Cook Inlet, small hatchery returns of sockeyes (2 percent) and pinks (6 percent) contributed $547,000 of the fishery value, or 2 percent.

This year nearly 63 million hatchery-produced salmon are projected to return home to Alaska, similar to last season.

The Salmon Enhancement report also shows that over 180 Alaska elementary schools participate in hatchery salmon egg take and release programs each year.

Fish watch

Salmon trollers are back out on the water at Neets Bay near Ketchikan and it's hard to believe that the 2015 salmon season will officially kick off in about two weeks at Copper River.

About 35 boats have dropped pots for nearly 70,000 pounds of spot shrimp at Prince William Sound. A beam trawl shrimp fishery opens in Southeast May 1 for pinks and side stripes.

Kodiak's roe herring fishery was slow going two weeks into the fishery. Still no action at Togiak, where boats and five buyers await a herring harvest of 29,000 tons.

Halibut landings have topped two million pounds, on par with last year's pace. The Alaska catch limit this year is 17 million pounds. Prices remain in the $6-$6.50 pound range or slightly higher at major ports.

Nearly half of the halibut has crossed the docks at Seward, and that port also stomps all others for sablefish (black cod) landings. Nearly 4 million pounds of sablefish have been landed statewide out of the 23.5 million pound quota. Dock prices reportedly have ranged from $3 per pound for small sizes to more than $7 per pound for large fish.

The snow crab fishery in the Bering Sea is winding down, with the fleet's 61 million pound quota within reach. About 80 percent of the 15-million-pound tanner crab catch has been landed.

Commercial fishing also is ongoing for cod, pollock, mackerel, perch, rockfish, numerous flounders and more throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.

The Alaska legislature ended up lopping $8 million from the Fish and Game budget; $5.5 million of that from the commercial fisheries division.

Frankenfish watch

As a decision to approve genetically modified salmon languishes at the Food and Drug Administration in D.C., the longtime activist group Food and Water Watch has taken the "very unusual" step of filing dual petitions to stop the fish.

According to the FDA Law Blog, Food and Water Watch filed both a Citizen Petition and a Food Additive Petition in an effort to block marketing of AquAdvantage salmon, should it be approved. The genetically tweaked fish grow three times faster than normal fish. The application has been under consideration by the FDA for two decades.

Specifically, Food and Water Watch seeks to have the AquAdvantage Salmon listed as a substance which is prohibited from use in human food, the Law Blog said.

"Under Food and Water Watch's petitions, FDA would promulgate a regulation that would specifically and explicitly deem AquAdvantage Salmon adulterated food as a matter of law, irrespective of whether the food from AquAdvantage Salmon poses any risk at all to consumers.

Seemingly unsure of how to go about making such a request of FDA, Food and Water Watch filed both petitions, each asking FDA to consider the other in the event that one of the petitions is not the proper avenue for making the unusual request," the Law Blog said.

If the Frankenfish gets the nod from the FDA, it will be the first genetically tweaked animal approved for human consumption.

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