Board of Fish hatchery meeting is about more than science

Mar 6, 2019

A stray pink salmon swims through Beluga Slough in Homer.
Credit Aaron Bolton, KBBI News

The Alaska Board of Fisheries will host a committee meeting Friday on Alaska’s salmon hatchery program. The gathering is meant to be a forum to discuss the latest research and developments in the hatchery industry.

That information is supposed to inform stakeholders, board members and department staffs’ understanding of the issues surrounding salmon hatcheries. But the conversation is about more than just science and statistics. 

Since 2013, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been studying how hatchery pink salmon and their wild counterparts interact. A new piece of information coming out of the study indicates that hatchery females may be less productive.

Fish and Game is still a long way from drawing any firm conclusions. But the findings will likely to be a point of contention when the Board of Fish holds its annual hatchery committee meeting Friday.

The first set of results is giving Nancy Hillstrand of Homer some hope.

”They keep saying they’re waiting on the study. I would hope that would make them take action like immediately,” Hillstrand said.

Hillstrand owns a small fish processor in Homer and is a well-known hatchery critic. She thinks hatchery fish are altering the genetics of wild stocks.

Hillstrand wants Fish and Game and the Board of Fish to reduce hatchery production statewide until they have a firm grasp on the impacts of hatchery straying.

“They’re very ancient genetics that knew what they were doing for five million years. They receded when the glaciers came in in the Ice Age, but then they repopulated these areas.”

However, Executive Director of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation Casey Campbell worries the information will be used to politicize the conversation.

“I think there will be people who will like to take this and say, ‘Oh, we’re right, we’re right, we’re right.’ This is very preliminary data,” Campbell said. “I think that when you take such a small sample size of something to draw conclusions to drive policy out of something like that, it is irresponsible.”

But it’s not just fish politics that are likely to drive Friday’s conversation.  Economics will also play a role according to Homer-based fisherman Morgan Jones.

“The hatchery needs to have a certain consistency, the fishermen need to have a consistency and the processors all need to have consistency, all of which make investment,” he said. “So it makes it really hard to have this purely environmental conversation because it is tied to economics.”

This is only the second time the Board of Fish has convened a hatchery committee meeting.

That’s set to continue on an annual basis and Board of Fish member Robert Ruffner said it’s hard to say what could come out of these conversations.

“Any time there’s potential for regulatory action to be taken either for or against any issue, that heightens peoples’ level of defense or aggressiveness trying to get something accomplished,” he explained. “I guess my hope is that maybe the rhetoric will maybe be toned down a little bit and we’ll be able to get into more open minded discussions about these issues.”

The board and department are unlikely to   make any sudden modifications to the hatchery program following Friday’s meeting. Still, they are dipping their toes into a conversation that may play a part in shaping its future.