The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association walked back a contentious plan to move most of a hatchery operation to the head of Tutka Bay near Homer Saturday. The association currently operates the Tutka Bay Hatchery in a lagoon connected to the bay, and the facility is permitted to release up to 100 million 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.
Some area residents have fought the move. Questions have been raised over ecological concerns and the operation moving further into Kachemak Bay State Park.
Area resident Nancy Hillstrand and owner of Coal Point Trading Company in Homer has been a vocal opponent of the plan.
“We don’t need to create a predator pit right there at the head of Tutka,” Hillstrand said. “If we want any of our really high value fisheries to come back, we really shouldn’t be releasing such a biomass of predators up there.”
The hatchery association has one year left on a three-year permit to release fish at the site. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Executive Director Gary Fandrei said the association has waited to make the change due to operational concerns and not because of public opinion.
The association wants to move the release site due to difficulty harvesting fish in the extremely tidal lagoon and because of 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 dissolved oxygen levels were dropping and killing the fish in the pens,” Commercial fisherman and Cook Inlet Aquaculture hatchery committee member Malcolm Milne explained. “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.”
Milne told the board Saturday it should approve the committee’s recommendation and proceed cautiously.
“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,” he added. “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.”
Most of the board agreed due to the cost of investing in new net pens for the site and because of increased production in Tutka Bay Lagoon.
The hatchery now collects eggs from fish in a freshwater creek near the lagoon site 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 said 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,” Johnson said. “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.
Hillstrand said she opposes the operation moving further into the state park regardless of the numbers, but it remains to be seen if a smaller footprint at the head of Tutka will appease others who are against the move.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture plans to move two net pens to the new release site for six weeks in late March or April. It will use different thermal markings for fish released at the head of the bay in order compare survival rates between the two sites.