A contentious plan to move most of a hatchery operation to the head of Tutka Bay near Homer was walked back slightly over the weekend.
The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association currently operates the Tutka Bay Hatchery in a lagoon connected to the bay. The facility is permitted to release up to 100,000 pink salmon at the new site. The hatchery association planned to begin releasing most of those fish in the spring of 2018, but board members voted to take a cautious approach, bringing the total release down to 16 million due to concerns over survival rates and operational costs.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture’s plan was to release about 80 percent of the fish raised in Tutka Bay Lagoon about four miles away at the head of Tutka Bay.
The hatchery association has one year left on a three-year permit to release fish at the site, and some area residents have fought the move. Questions have been raise over ecological concerns, the operation moving further into Kachemak Bay State Park, and some fear the hatchery pinks will out-compete wild fish.
The association say it has waited to make the change due to operational concerns and not because of public opinion.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture wants to move the release site due to difficulty harvesting fish in the extremely tidal lagoon and low oxygen levels killing fish during low tide cycles.
“When we were originally penning up the fish, we had all these other returning fish, the dissolving oxygen levels were dropping and killing the fish in the pens. Now the fish, as Mark Roth pointed out, have the ability to move in and out of the lagoon. We’re not having that same threat," said Malcolm Milne, a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman who sits on Cook Inlet Aquaculture’s hatchery committee.
The committee recommended releasing fewer fish to test the waters.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen when we move the fish out there. We don’t know what the survival rate is going to be. At the hatchery committee meeting, we felt it was prudent to take a small portion of our fish, try it out and see what the effects are going to be," Milne said.
Most of the board agreed due to the cost of investing in new net pens for the site and because of large changes in how the hatchery raises pink salmon in Tutka Bay Lagoon. It now collects eggs from fish in a freshwater creek at the back of the lagoon instead of keeping returning fish in pens. That has allowed fish to leave when oxygen levels get low.
The hatchery has also waited until fish get larger before releasing them, nearly tripling the number of pinks returning to the lagoon. President Brent Johnson says rising marine survival rates have changed the conversation.
“This last year is going to be around 6 percent. That’s real good, and that was done out of the lagoon and it’s reflective of the fresh-water egg take that we just started to do, and so I was concerned that we’re changing something significant again after having just changed to the fresh-water egg take, moving fish out into the bay.”
Other members wanted to move full-steam ahead despite the numbers in the lagoon. Board member Steve Vanek made a motion to release no less than 40 million pinks at the head of the bay, but the motion was swiftly defeated and the board approved the hatchery committee’s recommendation.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture plans to move two net pens to the new release site for six weeks in late March or April. It plans to use different thermal markings for fish released at the head of the bay in order compare survival rates between the two sites.
It also remains to be seen if the smaller footprint at the head of the bay will appease opponents of the plan.