Seafood groups pick up $5.9M tab for hatchery salmon research

Processors and seven hatcheries have agreed to pony up millions to keep an Alaska Department of Fish and Game research project going.

Pacific Seafood Processors Association and Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association Inc., committed $5.9 million to support the Wild/Hatchery Salmon Management Tools capital project.

The project is intended to fuel management decisions around Alaska’s 29 salmon hatcheries, as well as secure a more marketable reputation for Alaska hatchery stocks.

The program was originally started in 2012 as a collaboration between ADFG, the PSPA and private nonprofit hatcheries.

“The state’s share ($3.5 million) got put in as a capital appropriation in 2012,” explained Sam Rabung at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “It was a one-time deal. Our intention at the time — and times were better then — is we expected another increment. What’s going to carry this forward is the contributions from PSPA and (private nonprofits).

The program was originally slated to run through 2024, and with industry contributions totaling $850,000 per year over seven years, it will.

This is a different situation than several other instances in the last year where private parties have picked up funding for ADFG studies that have been cut to patch up Alaska’s $2.7 billion budget deficit. In this case, the processors and hatcheries already had planned to kick in — simply not so much.

“The stakeholders certainly feel it’s worth it, and that’s why they’re willing to fund it,” said Rabung.

The state does have hatchery programs for sockeye, Alaska’s most valuable crop, but the bulk of hatchery production is pink salmon in Prince William Sound and chum salmon in Southeast Alaska.

In 2015, the ex-vessel value of all commercially harvested hatchery fish was $125 million, half of which was pink salmon and a third of which was chum salmon.

PSPA President Glenn Reed painted the program as a sustainability measure as much as an economic one.

Securing a sustainability certification is a moneymaker for Alaska’s fisheries, and many retailers now require one for seafood products they sell.

The Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, issues one of the more widely accepted of these certifications, with the first it ever issued being for Alaska salmon.

Alaska dropped out of the MSC program in 2012 in favor of one created by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, in part over the high costs of certification but mainly over the demands for the state to undertake an “improvement plan” for its hatchery management.

In 2013, Walmart stated it wouldn’t buy salmon without MSC certification before evenutally relenting.

“The goal of this 10-12 year effort is to illustrate, stated simply, that Alaska’s hatchery program is designed and managed in a way that does not cause genetic dilution of the wild stocks,” wrote Reed in an email. “The study was initiated to illustrate this for the benefit of markets that purchase seafood certified as sustainable by the MSC.”

Indeed, Rabung said the program is an important way to differentiate Alaska’s hatchery stocks from the rest of the world’s in terms of negative impacts to wild stocks.

“One of the things that drove this is an awful lot of criticism of hatcheries all over the place,” he said. “We in Alaska operate significantly differently. We have much more stringent guidance, we’re much more restrictive. For example, the only place in the world that requires local stocks.”

Hatchery distrust is certainly a feature in Alaska, and at the highest levels.

During a Jan. 31 House Fish and Game Finance subcommittee meeting, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, claimed that hatchery fish were killing wild stocks and that it seemed improper for ADFG to focus more on their management than that of wild stocks.

ADFG data says the opposite.

Rabung points to empirical evidence that Alaska’s hatcheries do not harm wild stocks the same way they might in other salmon-producing countries and regions. Far from killing wild stocks, hatchery salmon and wild stocks have rebounded in tandem since the program was started in the 1970s to relieve historically low salmon runs.

According to an ADFG hatchery report from 2015, wild stocks are healthier now than they were before the state launched it hatcheries.

The 2013 season was a record salmon harvest. It was the second highest catch for wild stocks (176 million fish) and the highest catch for hatchery stocks (107 million fish) in Alaska’s history.

The 2015 season was the second-highest harvest, with the third-highest catch for wild stocks and the second highest catch for hatchery stocks.

“The hatchery harvests alone in both 2013 and 2015 were greater than the entire statewide commercial salmon harvest in every year prior to statehood except for years 1918, 1926, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1938, and 1941,” according to the report.

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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