Out in the Alaska wilds, it’s easy to miss the subtler goings on: a wolverine passing through the underbrush, the sound of a bear snuffling at the edge of a creek filled with salmon. After years of visiting Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s remote sites, though, Gary Fandrei knows what to look for.
Not everyone who goes out to work in the field sees everything, he said.
“It’s interesting to see what people see,” he said.
A lot of his career has been spent in seeing both the details and the big picture, first as a fisheries biologist with the hatchery operator and then as its executive director. But after 27 years with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, Fandrei is planning to retire this spring. He’ll stay on until the board finds a new executive director.
It was just time, he said.
“At some point, retirement is going to be inevitable for everybody,” he said.
Originally from the Midwest, Fandrei joined Cook Inlet Aquaculture as a fisheries biologist in 1990. The organization looked significantly different then — it operated fewer hatcheries in different places than it does today, and the invasive species its staff helps control were not nearly as widespread a problem as they are today. Over the years, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has shifted its effort away from sockeye salmon and Upper Cook Inlet salmon enhancement to Lower Cook Inlet and producing pink salmon. Today, it operates four hatcheries, three of which actively raise salmon each year and a fourth they occasionally use as a backup or allow the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to use.
The hatcheries largely operate in Lower Cook Inlet, releasing pink salmon from the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery and Port Graham Hatchery near Homer and raising salmon for release elsewhere at the Trail Lakes Hatchery near Moose Pass. Upper Cook Inlet is notorious for clashes between fishermen of different user groups, while Lower Cook Inlet has been historically more commercial fishermen.
Hatcheries are funded in large part by a 2 percent fisheries enhancement tax paid by commercial fishermen statewide. However, some have raised complaints that Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s operations largely focus on salmon enhancement in Lower Cook Inlet rather than in Upper Cook Inlet, where the majority of fishermen are in the region.
That’s not always been the case, Fandrei explained. Until the early 2000s, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association operated a sockeye salmon enhancement project in Tustumena Lake at the headwaters of the Kasilof River, and used to release fish from the Eklutna Salmon Hatchery near Anchorage. However, the Tustumena Lake project ended after a lawsuit and the aquaculture association shuttered hatchery operations at the Eklutna facility in 1998.
In part, it’s because they can’t operate in a lot of lakes or river systems in Upper Cook Inlet without interfering with preexisting salmon runs. That’s not as much the case in Lower Cook Inlet, Fandrei said.
“We have more opportunity for enhancement programs in Lower Cook Inlet,” Fandrei said. “A lot of the enhancement work we do in Upper Cook Inlet has to do with making sure we have data for management, making sure fish have access … (and) management of invasive species like pike and elodea.”
Under his leadership, they’ve been working to bring two new hatcheries up to full operation: Port Graham and Tutka Bay Lagoon. Both are pink salmon hatcheries and located on the lowest spur of the Kenai Peninsula. Getting a hatchery operation going takes time — the fish culturists have to collect eggs over a series of years to build a broodstock and make the hatchery run self-sustaining to help support the common property fishery the hatchery is intended to support.
Though Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery has had some issues with water quality, siltation and floods in the past year, the two facilities are almost there, Fandrei said. The staff members are working on improving survival rates and plan to move the net pens where they imprint smolt outside the lagoon to make it easier for fishermen to harvest them for cost recovery, he said.
“We’re right at the crest of the hill (with the two hatcheries),” he said. “Trying to get two programs on at the same time is a challenge.”
The person who steps into the role will take charge of those hatcheries, the Trail Lakes Hatchery and the numerous weir monitoring projects and invasive species control programs Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association operates in the Susitna River watershed, helping to control populations of invasive northern pike and elodea infestations.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association gets a broad view of Cook Inlet’s various salmon systems, from the west side of Cook Inlet where the organization operates a fish passage ladder in Kamishak Bay to the more urban systems like the Susitna River. Through that work, Fandrei said he’s been able to work with fishermen of all different user groups, in part because the common property fishery salmon they release benefit sportfishermen as well as commercial fishermen. His approach to politics has to be somewhat limited because of the restrictions on 501(c)3 nonprofits, though he does have a stake in some of the decisions on development and fisheries regulations.
“My approach has been to let people know that we’re a resource,” he said. “We don’t get out ahead and be the cheerleader for some type of action … one of the things I’ve been concerned about is that with all the development in the Mat-Su Valley and the Anchorage Bowl, we may be targeting a level of salmon production that’s no longer (possible).”
Brent Johnson, the president of Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s board of directors, said the board planned to look “everywhere” for a new executive director. Fandrei will continue to represent Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association on the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council and with the United Fishermen of Alaska, which is nice, Johnson said.
“I just have the highest regard for Gary possible,” he said. “He’s been wonderful and made it easy for me to work.”
Fandrei said he wasn’t sure what he’d do next, though he’s a member of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council and active in the Civil Air Patrol. He said he wanted to ensure the organization would get through the transition in leadership well.
“My goal … is I want to see the transition go smoothly,” he said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.