The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has suspended year-round operations at its Tutka Bay Lagoon hatchery south of Homer, citing low salmon prices and a need to conserve funds for other projects.
The hatchery, which still plans to release 55 million pink salmon this year, has produced more than 22 million adult pink salmon since operations began in 1975.
However, according to CIAA director Gary Fandrei, the board of directors decided earlier this month that continuing year-round operations simply is not cost effective.
"There's two factors," Fandrei said Thursday. "One is the survival rate is below the state average, and two, once the price gets below 10 cents a pound (for pink salmon), it's really hard to justify operating a facility."
Fandrei said the decision will likely impact lower Cook Inlet fishers, who he said have been able to harvest up to 1 million pink salmon from the Tutka hatchery annually.
"It's going to be a significant problem for the commercial fishery down there," he said.
Although the price for pink salmon is currently near its historic low, Fandrei said the problem is that if the price rebounds, the hatchery will not be able to respond to the demand for fish.
"Once we stop taking eggs over there, we lose our brood stock," he said.
The decision to end the year-round program at Tutka Bay was not an easy one for the board to make.
"It was a very close decision," Fandrei said.
One factor that may have played into the decision, he said, was the recent federal ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that shut down CIAA's Tustumena Lake operations.
The case is currently under appeal. If the ruling stands, the association will lose its egg source for several other lakes in the Cook Inlet system, forcing the association to investigate other options for rebuilding those stocks.
"Building a new brood stock for these projects will be expensive," he said in a press release CIAA issued Thursday.
As for the fate of the 6 million sockeye salmon waiting at the now-defunct Tustumena hatchery, Fandrei said he's hopeful that the Alaska District Court -- which is currently weighing the issue -- will allow the fish to be released into the lake. If that doesn't happen, he said there's a good chance those fish will not be released at all.
That's because CIAA would prefer not to mix Tustumena fish with sockeye at other stocking locations in the inlet.
"We don't like to just go dumping salmon at random," he said.
Barring any settlement allowing the juvenile salmon to be released into Tustumena, he said, those fish could end up being destroyed -- a prospect CIAA does not relish.
"The guys at the hatchery are not looking forward to the day when they have to kill six million fish," he said.
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