Time to scale back?

Weak western fish may lead to hatchery cutbacks

Posted: Tuesday, August 15, 2000

Southeast Alaska fishermen are concerned the state will rob Peter without paying Paul in its search for answers to low salmon runs in Western Alaska.

In signing a salmon disaster declaration last month for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound watersheds, Gov. Tony Knowles called for a reduction in hatchery production that affects wild chum stocks in Western Alaska.

Thats going to have a shocking impact and may not restore the runs he wants to restore, said Linnea Osborne of Juneau, whose family fishes commercially.

Hatchery chums have been a big boost to commercial fishermen in Southeast, making up about 70 percent of their chum catch last year, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. Production cuts could close hatcheries that owe the state money for construction and early operating costs, hatchery operators said.

Unless the state forgives debt, reduced production would only mean we could not pay our obligations and therefore we would go out of business, said Jon Carter, executive director of the Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery in Juneau.

Some Western Alaskans think the burgeoning numbers of hatchery fish, especially chums, are competing with wild fish for food in the ocean. Chums feed for several years in the ocean before returning to fresh water to spawn.

There are some indications they are feeding on the same commons, said Dan Senecal-Albrecht, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.

He cited a survey of salmon incidentally caught in the Bering Sea groundfish fisheries that showed about a quarter of the salmon were from Southeast and Prince William Sound.

Hatchery chums are doing well in the ocean. In recent years, hatcheries have released about twice as many chum fry as in 1990. But about seven times more hatchery adults return from the ocean than in 1990, according to state figures.

Western Alaskans have noticed wild fish have been getting smaller and their numbers have declined substantially, said Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents.

I believe we have to do a study on impacts by hatchery fishing because of the limited oceanfeeding areas by wild stock, he said.

The state wants to review all aspects of the Western Alaska salmon life cycle, from the streams to the ocean, said Knowles spokesman Bob King.

The governor believes that science has to be the driving factor and there has to be a good public process in all of this, King added.

The question is what to do in the absence of solid information. Some people say do nothing unless theres evidence of harm. Others say fishery managers should take precautions and not let a lot of salmon be produced.

Steve McGee, who oversees private, nonprofit hatcheries for Fish and Game, hasnt seen an impact on wild chums in Southeast.

More wild chums, as well as hatchery chums, are returning to Southeast from the ocean, and the fish are fatter than in past years, biologists said. That leads McGee to think the fish are not fighting for food in the ocean.

Others are concerned summer hatchery runs are hurting the fall wild runs in northern Southeast waters.

Carter said he hopes any decision will be based on good scientific information, not speculation. He questions why some Western Alaska runs are strong while others are poor.

We need to know whats happening in the rivers and whats happening in the Bering, he said.

Fish from many stocks, including from Japan, Canada and Russia, mill in the ocean. The first months young salmon spend in saltwater, near shore, are the most critical for survival, biologists said. Theres some evidence Southeast chums spend their first ocean year in the Gulf of Alaska and not in the Bering Sea, which is much farther away.

Senecal-Albrecht, who represents Yukon River fishermen, agrees the first ocean year is most important. He said the state may not be able to control what happens then, but it can control how many hatchery fish are produced.

Senecal-Albrecht also said the main concern of Western Alaska fishermen is the impact of hatchery fish on markets.

The state Board of Fisheries decided last winter to spend a year investigating whether to cut hatchery production. Western Alaska fishermen asked for major reductions more than 50 percent for DIPAC saying hatchery-enhanced runs in Southeast have helped flood the commercial market.

They also said hatchery fish were eating up the ocean food.

I dont think theres a person in the world that knows the answer to that, state Fisheries Board Chairman Dan Coffey said from Anchorage.

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