Tutka Bay hatchery debate resurfaces
May 18th 8:07 pm | Carey Restino
Public hearing draws hours of testimony for and against moving net pens to head of Tutka Bay
The debate over placing hatchery net pens filled with 100 million pink salmon fry at the head of Tutka Bay sprang back to life this week, drawing a crowd of 150 to a "listening session" sponsored by state regulators, who approved the hatchery plans in January, but said they wanted to give people in Homer an opportunity to talk.
And talk they did. In a sometimes heated exchange, fishermen and hatchery managers talked about their contributions to the community, their connection to the marine environment, and their fear that special interests would shut them down. Others, however, expressed concern about the impact the net pens and hatchery operation, as well as increased fishing activity, would have in an area of Kachemak Bay State Park that one person characterized as "the last pristine place in Kachemak Bay."
It's not a new controversy by any measure — Kachemak Bay residents have been debating the application by the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association to move net pens from Tutka Bay Lagoon to the head of Tutka Bay between mid-March and mid-June for years. The permit application was originally denied after going through the public process. During the past three years, the state permit was then approved, retracted, reconsidered and finally, in January, reinstated again by the state Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation for a two-year trial period. The department took on the review and analysis because the net pens would be located in Kachemak Bay State Park. But after the permit to move the pens was issued, some in opposition to the hatchery move questioned the fact that the hatchery didn't appear to have a Clean Water Act permit. In early May, they got news that the fish pen move was being put off until 2018.
Even so, a panel of decision-makers, including Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotton, Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack and state Aquaculture Section Chief Sam Rabung came to Homer at the urging of the Gov. Bill Walker to hear what those in the region had to say about the future of the hatchery operation in Kachemak Bay.
Hatcheries are common-place in many areas of the state, including Prince William Sound, with a history of operation stretching back into the 1970s, when they were started to boost depressed commercial salmon fisheries. Regulators call the program a success story, noting that the enhancement program is managed so as to not impact the wild stocks of fish. But the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, run by the private nonprofit the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, is reportedly running millions in the red, and has shut down in recent years due to rock bottom prices for pink salmon. The hatchery has also faced challenges due to its location, including problems with oxygen levels in the shallow bay that have lead to low survival rates in its pens.
Only a handful of fishermen currently fish the pink salmon that return to Tutka Bay Lagoon, and fishing in the lagoon is a tight squeeze. If not enough fish are harvested, the flood of pinks causes problems, too. So managers of the hatchery want to imprint the fish in another area where there is more space for fishermen to harvest the salmon. That spot has to be somewhere that does not have a wild salmon run, as well as a host of other factors that make Tutka Bay virtually the only spot feasible for the move, hatchery owners say.
Tutka Bay is also a hotspot for nature enthusiasts who come to enjoy its quiet beauty, pristine shoreline and dramatic waterfall. The bay can be seen from several of the parks trails, including a new trail currently being constructed, and is a popular destination for kayakers. While other areas of Kachemak Bay State Park have been developed and used for mariculture farms, Tutka Bay remains relatively undeveloped.
Brad Faulkner said it's the place he takes most of his family when the day breeze kicks up and they want a calm spot to enjoy the park. He said his family setnets in Prince William Sound and he's experienced the noise and disturbance of that fishing industry at work.
"The noise pollution sounds like the Indy 500," he said. "That pristine part of the park will be lost."
Others noted that the growing outdoor recreation industry draws thousands of paying customers to Homer each year, people willing to spend thousands of dollars to enjoy quiet wilderness.
But some in the audience objected to that argument, saying the park was not created with the intent of prohibiting commercial activity.
Larry Cabana said he has been fishing his whole life and thinks fishermen are stewards of the ocean, conservationists at heart. But he objects to those who want to lock up Kachemak Bay State Park.
"It was created to be used by all people, not just for a select group of people to cruise around in kayaks," he said.
Many testified that not enough baseline data had been collected from the head of Tutka Bay to be able to assess the impact the net pens may have on the area. Others asked what the carrying capacity was of Kachemak Bay to support large runs of pink salmon.
"I would just like to say that at some point, more is too much," said Mako Haggerty, who operates a water taxi in Kachemak Bay and also sits of the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizens Advisory Board. "Putting another 100 million mouths in the head of Tutka is too much. Every time you bring in quantity, you lose quality."
Rabung, however, commented that scientific studies done in Prince William Sound noted that the impacts of the state's hatchery program on the region's marine environment were negligible. He said 30 percent of the fish harvested in Alaska are hatchery-raised fish, representing a huge economic force in the state. He said the fry are fed in the net pens so they are not feeding until they move out of the bay.
"Our prime directive is first to do no harm," he said. "We are required to protect the sustainability of wild stocks so everything we do is targeted from that."
Sonja Corazza said she has been a commercial fisherman most of her life and spends much of her time fighting for clean water. But hatcheries and mariculture operations in Kachemak Bay don't concern her, she said.
"I celebrate all the net pens," she said. "All those blue buoys are supporting families and people and economies in Alaska."
Others questioned the economic impact of the pink fishery, typically a low-valued fish compared to other species, with much of the profit going to cost-recovery efforts for the hatchery expenses.
Clem Tillion, former longtime Alaska legislator, commercial fishing lobbyist, Halibut Cove resident and one of the principal forces in the creation of Kachemak Bay State Park, said moving the net pens to the head of Tutka Bay falls in the scope of why he created the park. He said he wanted to keep Kachemak Bay from turning into another Yosemite Park where people couldn't engage in any commercial enterprise. He also didn't want the area entirely owned by private residents.
"I wanted a place for people to hunt and fish without bumping into no trespassing signs," he said.
Tillion said he doesn't see anything wrong with allowing net pens in the head of Tutka Bay, noting that aquaculture did not hurt the ecology of Prince William Sound, but rather encouraged the fishing industry there.
But Rodger McCampbell, former ranger for the park, said when he and others drew up the management plan for the park, they could not have imagined the changes that would come in the decades to follow. McCambell questioned what precedent the net pens would set in terms of industry use of the area.
Exactly what will come of the testimony taken at Monday night's Homer meeting was unclear. With the Tutka Bay hatchery pen relocation on hold this year, the pens could be moved next year, after which, the association would have to reapply for a permit. Those concerned about the net pens said they are hopeful that state regulators will report some of their concerns back to the governor.
"I hope you are not here just to provide some sort of minimum levels of due diligence in terms of listening," said Kirsten Dixon of the Tutka Bay Lodge. "What is your bottom line? What are you getting out of this? It seems like the benefit is not that great."