ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state Board of Fisheries on Wednesday voted down a proposal to cut chum salmon production at hatcheries in Southeast and in Prince William Sound.
Instead, the seven-member board voted 6-0, with one member absent, to adopt a plan to encourage more statewide talk about the marketing and environmental impacts of creating millions of hatchery chums, and also to settle lingering questions of exactly who regulates hatcheries.
The vote settles, at least for now, a cross-state salmon dispute that has simmered for years.
Representatives of Western Alaska wild chum fishermen wanted the board to reduce hatchery output, saying the hatcheries have glutted both the market and the ocean ecosystem. As a result, they argued, demand for Western chums has dropped. In addition, they fear the wild fish might be losing a battle in the ocean for food with hatchery fish, resulting in the recent poor chum returns to Western Alaska rivers.
Gov. Tony Knowles, who has declared salmon disasters for Western Alaska in three of the last four years, had asked the board to possibly ''stop or reduce'' hatchery production.
Hatchery operators say neither the market nor the ecological complaints have been proven.
A position paper drafted by board chairman Dan Coffey said ''there is no scientific evidence demonstrating that competition with hatchery fish is a significant factor in the collapse of Western Alaska wild chum stocks.''
However, Coffey said in an interview that he believes hatchery production definitely has hurt demand for Western Alaska chum salmon.
Among the key points in Coffey's paper, which was adopted by the board Wednesday, the final day of a three-week meeting in Anchorage:
--The hatcheries generally have met the goals set in the 1970s when the hatchery program was developed to supplement wild runs in Southeast and Prince William Sound.
--Hatchery production already has been cut significantly since 1997.
--The board and the state commissioner of Fish and Game should develop a ''joint protocol'' to settle questions of who has authority over hatcheries.
--A statewide chum salmon forum should be convened for sharing information and expertise about hatchery and wild salmon production, research and marketing.
--Ideas including state loans should be explored for improving the marketability and run strength of Western Alaska salmon.
Peter Esquiro, general manager of Sitka hatchery operator Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association Inc., said he was generally pleased with the board action.
He said he welcomes scientific studies, and he cited distance as a bigger competitive problem for Western chums than the hatcheries. Many countries produce chum salmon and processors have a hard time making up for the transportation costs associated with buying Western Alaska chums, Esquiro said.
Western Alaska salmon representatives Dan Senecal-Albrecht and Jude Henzler praised the idea of the joint protocol, saying more statewide coordination is needed to keep state-subsidized projects such as hatcheries from hurting some parts of the state while helping others.
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