High Prices Spur Interest in Port Graham Salmon Hatchery

     High prices for pink salmon have spurred interest in hatchery operations in Kachemak Bay. Kenai-based Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has applied with the State of Alaska to reopen a hatchery in Port Graham that closed six years ago.

     Carolyn Cherry is Hatchery Operations Coordinator for the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. She’s the one who wrote the application to reopen the pink salmon hatchery in Port Graham.

     Cherry says that the hatchery used to be run by the non-profit Port Graham Hatchery Corporation, under the Port Graham Village Council. When pink salmon prices dipped to a level that made the hatchery unsustainable in 2007, the corporation shut it down. But now, with prices upwards of 40 cents per pound for pink salmon, the numbers make sense.

     The aquaculture association would own the existing building and equipment at the hatchery and would lease the land. Cherry says the hatchery has been kept in good shape and costs to reopen should be minimal.

     In its application to the state, the aquaculture association estimates that the hatchery could provide more than two-million adult pink salmon per year. At current market prices, that works out to a value of about $3.4 million.

     The reopening of the hatchery could also have an economic impact on Port Graham. Cherry says the hatchery would employee four people year-round and another 6 to 12 people in the summer months. If the hatchery is successful, the association hopes the now-dormant cannery in Port Graham could also be reopened, leading to more jobs and economic activity.

     This isn’t the aquaculture association’s first go-round when it comes to reopening pink salmon hatcheries in the Kachemak Bay area. In 2009, it started a similar hatchery back up in Tutka Bay, which had been dormant for several years. Cherry says that hatchery has yet to turn a profit but it is getting closer to that goal.

     Of course, whenever hatchery operations are debated in Alaska, the question of environmental effects on wild stocks always comes up. Cherry says the hatchery will operate out of Port Graham Bay and the aquaculture association will have to pay close attention to the wild salmon stocks on the Port Graham River.

     "In our agreement with Fish and Game, we have to make sure that the fish get to the river first before we're allowed to go in and start collecting fish," she said. "So we make sure the escapement goal for the Port Graham River is taken care of before we do anything."

     Mark Stopha is a Hatchery Program Evaluation Specialist for the state Department of Fish and Game. He says that all private non-profit hatcheries in Alaska have to follow a set of regulations and policies, including an application process.

      Right now, Fish and Game is taking public comment on the application, in advance of a public meeting that will be held in Port Graham next month. Stopha’s department is also going through the application itself.

     In a 2012 report about the Tutka Bay hatchery, Stopha noted that pink salmon make up the bulk of hatchery-produced fish in Alaska. Pinks are particularly well suited to hatcheries because of their short, two-year life cycle, resulting in a quicker turnaround on investment.

     The public meeting on the proposed hatchery will be held at the Port Graham Community Center December 19, from 11 am to 1:30 pm. The deadline for public comments is January 14th. After that, Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell will have 75 days to issue a final approval.