Moving the Tutka Bay Lagoon hatchery makes good sense

Kachemak Bay State Park is a majestic land of endless hiking, kayaking, camping and adventure just a short boat ride across the bay from Homer. Folks flock from all over the state to play in this incredible and dynamic space that has been preserved for the enjoyment of all Alaskans. The park is home to several unique coves and bays, including China Poot Bay and Tutka Bay Lagoon. You may have heard of these areas over the past few months as they pertain to Homer Rep. Sarah Vance’s House Bill 52.

House Bill 52 proposes to remove Tutka Bay Lagoon from Kachemak Bay State Park so that the privately operated pink salmon hatchery there may continue to run its facility. This bill arose in opposition to the Department of Natural Resources’ new management plan the park intends to adopt. The plan deems the Tutka Bay Lagoon pink salmon hatchery incompatible with the park, and requires Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, the organization that runs the hatchery, to relocate it by 2031. This makes sense for many reasons. The park was designed to be utilized and enjoyed by average folks like you and me, not for large private entities. Regardless of how the land is designated, this is a poor location for a hatchery of this size. The lagoon is too small to support the volume of pink salmon that the hatchery is releasing — about 30 times more than the original wild run there — which is the root of many of the issues with its operation. The closure of this hatchery will be very beneficial to Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, or CIAA, as it gives them an opportunity to find a new area that can sustain the operations they’ve been struggling to make work in the lagoon. If they are able to secure a location with sufficient fresh water, they could produce higher-value fish, like chinook or sockeye, rather than lower-valued pink salmon.

The future closure of the Tutka Bay Lagoon hatchery has raised a few concerns for some. The primary one seems to be in regards to the China Poot dipnet fishery. Some of you may have never been to China Poot or dipnetted there. It is a unique and extraordinarily beautiful place, accessible by boat — if the tide is up — and narrows back to China Poot Creek, which feeds into the bay. You’ll often see people snagging salmon there at the head of the creek, but if you don your waterproof gear, venture up the creek and traverse a couple waterfalls you’ll reach the dipnet area. This fishery is exclusive to Alaska residents and each person is allowed six sockeye per day. With the large amount of fish moving through, it is fairly easy to catch your limit. Since Kachemak Bay is home to such rich stocks of wild fish, you might think this is a natural run; however, these fish are hatchery-born. They are raised at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s Trail Lakes Hatchery near Seward and brought over to Kachemak Bay to be released.

The fish go through quite a journey before they make it to our dinner table, and the facilities in Tutka Bay Lagoon do play a small role in that. Eggs and milt are “taken” in Tutka Bay Lagoon and are then sent out to the Trail Lakes Hatchery located near Seward, and it is there that they receive the bulk of their care. The eggs are fertilized and looked after until the fish are at the fry or smolt stage of their life cycle. At this point they’re brought back down to Homer to stock Leisure Lake, as well as some that go to Tutka Bay for future broodstock. The hatchery fish then move through a regular salmon lifecycle, spending some time at sea before they return back to where they were stocked, either working their way up to the China Poot falls to be caught by us or out to Tutka Bay to be captured for eggs and milt.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association runs four hatcheries in the Cook Inlet region; the one closest to Homer is the Tutka Bay Lagoon hatchery. The hatchery has outgrown the lagoon. It no longer has the freshwater capacity to raise sockeye, and at this point is only able to rear pink salmon. The closure of the pink salmon hatchery in Tutka Lagoon does not need to affect the availability of sockeye salmon in Tutka or China Poot.

We can look back at recent history for insight. Between 2004-2011, CIAA themselves shut down this hatchery due to insolvency over low pink salmon prices. Over the near-decade they were closed, CIAA continued to do its small, remote sockeye egg take and send them up to Trail Lakes to take on rearing the fish. The China Poot dipnet fishery continued to thrive despite the fact that the Tutka hatchery was shut down; and it would certainly thrive in the future if CIAA allows the sockeye to be reared at the Trail Lakes hatchery, as they have for many years.

Alternatively, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stocks numerous lakes around Alaska with a variety of fish species. It seems that stocking sockeye in Leisure Lake would be well within their capacity, especially considering that Fish and Game operated the Tutka Bay Lagoon hatchery and performed egg takes for many years before it was transferred to CIAA. Another consideration is that CIAA will be given 10 years to move its operations outside of the state park. That is ample time for more options to arise to best support this sockeye fishery. Perhaps CIAA will even find a location with sufficient fresh water that they won’t need to rely on Trail Lakes to do the bulk of the sockeye process anymore.

Although harvesting eggs and milt is obviously important, it is such a small part of the process. It seems absurd to me that we would need a large pink salmon operation dominating the bay to run a small sockeye fishery. Folks would like you to believe we cannot have one without the other, and that in order to continue dipnetting the Poot, you must also support a pink hatchery that has outgrown its place in the lagoon. CIAA should see this closure as an opportunity to better serve Alaskans and themselves in a more ideal location. Support Kachemak Bay State Park and Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association by standing behind the new park management plan and opposing House Bill 52.

Cristen San Roman is a 23-year-old resident of Homer with experience working in seafood and fish processing.

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