A contentious release site for hatchery pink salmon near Homer is being forced to move after it was put in the wrong place. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association installed two net pens in late April near the head of Tutka Bay as part of its plan to move a portion of its nearby Tutka Bay Lagoon operation.
There was confusion over the permitted location for the pens, but now the hatchery association and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are at odds with the Department of Natural Resources over where the pens will be moved to.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association Executive Director Gary Fandrei said there was some confusion about where the pens were to be anchored when the hatchery association’s crew installed them last month.
“They placed the pens where they believed they were supposed to go, and the pens will need to be moved because they are not in compliance with the park permit,” Fandrei explained.
The project moves the hatchery association’s operation further into Kachemak Bay State Park, which has been a point of contention for some area residents.
The project requires a handful of permits from different state and federal agencies. DNR is among those agencies. Jack Blackwell is the superintendent of the park, which is regulated by DNR.
Blackwell told the Kachemak Bay State Park Advisory Board Wednesday that it initially approved three locations for the pens before it issued the permit in March of 2017.
“When it came time to issue the permit, we received a request for an alternative location, which was the coordinates that actually made it into the final permit,” Blackwell said.
Fandrei said the confusion over the location comes from a subsequent request made by staff to move the pens to the current location. He said the employee that formally requested DNR to change the location is no longer with the hatchery association, and it’s unclear what happened with the request.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture installed the pens about a mile west of where DNR says they should be, and the department asked the hatchery association to move the pens to the permitted coordinates.
Fandrei said that site is not ideal because it doesn’t have a freshwater source nearby for the young salmon to imprint on and return to. But DNR said it won’t amend the permit.
Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Glenn Hollowell said that site could lead to problems when the fish return.
“We would have a lot of straying associated with releases from that site,” Hollowell cautioned. “So no, we can’t make that a salmon imprinting site if it doesn’t have a freshwater source associated with it.”
Cook Inlet Aquaculture’s permit with the Army Corps of Engineers is in line with DNR, and both have the ultimate say over where the pens can go.
Fandrei said Cook Inlet Aquaculture does have a habitat permit with Fish and Game. The permit doesn’t specify specific coordinates for the pens, but Fandrei said the hatchery association does take Fish and Game’s input seriously.
He said the hatchery association will decide within the next couple of days whether to move the pens to the new site or move them back to its Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery about four miles away.
“The number of fish in the pens is about 2.5 million. We can do some things because there are only a small number of fish in there to help with the moving,” Fandrei explained. “But anytime we move those fish, we’re going to be putting additional stress on them.”
Fandrei said the decision will have to be made before the remaining 18 million pinks it planned to raise at the head of the bay are placed in the pens.
Fandrei said those fish are at risk of dying in incubators at the lagoon site if they’re not moved soon.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture planned to transfer those fish over the weekend during a high tide cycle, which Fandrei said is the only time larger boats can get in and out of the lagoon.