FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Alaska anglers better not want to catch any more fish in the next year or two, because the state can't grow them.
State hatcheries at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base are ''maxed out'' and with the scheduled closure of the Fort Richardson power plant in less than two years, which will cut off the hot water supply to that hatchery, the state is scrambling to come up with a way to produce enough fish to meet the growing demand of Alaska anglers.
''We're redlining,'' said Larry Peltz, who heads the state's hatchery program.
This year, the state released about 5 million fish into Alaska creeks, rivers, lakes and ponds. The fish ranged in size from millions of 1-inch salmon fry headed for the ocean to thousands of 8- to 10-inch rainbow trout headed for the frying pan.
But if the state can't come up with another source of hot water to replace what they now get at Fort Richardson, it will mean fewer fish will be stocked for anglers to catch.
''It's a situation which we have to correct,'' Division of Sport Fish director Kelly Hepler said.
The state has already submitted a request to Sen. Ted Stevens for $4 million to build a pipeline to pump warm water to the hatchery from the municipal power plant, which sits just 1-1/2 miles away.
''That's the primary thing we're going after right now,'' said Hepler.
Warm-water programs for growing catchable-size fish have already been moved to Elmendorf in anticipation that the Fort Richardson power plant will close. The state is also re-evaluating its water recycling and reuse program in hopes of running the hatcheries more efficiently to cut down on the need for hot water. Outside experts toured the state's two hatcheries last month to make recommendations.
There has also been talk of building a new state-of-the-art hatchery, with Fairbanks mentioned as a possible location for such a facility.
''If we could start all over again I'd love to do that, but that's a very expensive proposition,'' Hepler said of a new hatchery. ''I'm not willing to explore that until I'm convinced we don't have a way to fix the hatcheries we have.''
The state uses hot water generated by the power plants at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf to help grow fish.
Heat acts like a steroid, accelerating the growth of the fish and allowing the state to grow an 8-inch rainbow trout, arctic grayling, arctic char or chinook salmon in one year, said fish culturist Jeff Milton, who manages the Fort Richardson hatchery.
''Without heat it would take us twice as long to produce the same number of fish,'' he said.
The majority of the fish released -- about 4.4 million to be exact -- are chinook or coho salmon smolts, only a few inches long. Most of those fish are dumped into heavily fished salmon creeks in Southcentral Alaska, where they return after four or five years of feeding in the ocean to be caught by commercial and sport fishermen.
But the state also releases about a half million catchable-size rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, Arctic char and landlocked king salmon into lakes around the state that otherwise wouldn't have fish. The state stocking program helps ensure the health of wild fish stocks by reducing fishing pressure on those stocks.
In Southcentral, for example, Fish and Game estimates that 25 percent of the king salmon caught in the Mat-Su Valley and Kenai Peninsula are hatchery-raised fish.
''What would happen to the wild stocks if we lost that 25 percent of harvest?'' Hepler, the division director, said. ''(Hatchery production) is critical to the wealth and well-being of fisheries in Alaska.''
This year, the state stocked almost 1 million fish into more than 130 Interior lakes and ponds. The majority, about 810,000, were fingerlings. The rest, about 170,000, were catchable-size landlocked salmon, Arctic grayling, lake trout and rainbow trout. According Fish and Game statistics, more than half the fish caught each year in the Tanana Valley are stocked fish.
''These hatchery programs provide people with an alternative harvest opportunity to the wild stocks,'' said Mike Doxey, area management biologist for Fish and Game's sport fish division in Fairbanks. ''They give people a place where they can go catch a fish and eat it.''
The state's hatchery program accounts for about 10 percent of the Department of Fish and Game's $20 million budget. While it may not rival child rearing, raising fish isn't cheap.
It costs the state about $2 to grow an 8-inch rainbow trout or chinook salmon. A catchable-size grayling costs almost $3.50. It takes more than $4 to raise an 8-inch Arctic char.
This year, the state spent more than $1 million on catchable-size fish alone. Fish and Game stocked approximately 300,000 catchable rainbow trout, 120,000 landlocked king salmon, 50,000 Arctic grayling and 8,500 lake trout.
There is plenty of demand for more fish is there if the state could produce them, Milton said.
''Most biologists would like to see more fish,'' he said. ''Bigger, healthier fish are always in demand, but right now we're just fighting to keep production continuous.''
Another problem that has developed in the last few years is that the fingerlings coming out of the hatchery are getting smaller and it's taking longer to grow them, which reduces their chances of survival in the wild, said sport fish biologist Cal Skaugstad, who manages the stocking program for Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
Even under the best conditions, only about 10 percent of fingerlings, which are normally 2 to 4 inches long, survive to grow to 8 inches. But last year, Skaugstad said, barely any of the 600,000 fingerlings he stocked in Quartz Lake survived.
''They're smaller and they're stocked later in the year; they don't get a chance to grow and then bigger fish feed on them,'' Skaugstad said. ''I was able to fix it this year because we had some extra catchables I was able to put in, but that won't happen next year.''
Even if the state had more space and hot water to work with at the hatcheries on Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base, it wouldn't do much good at this point, Peltz said. Funding is another factor in the whole hatchery equation.
When the state closed the Clear Hatchery on Clear Air Force Station south of Fairbanks in 1997 because it was too expensive to operate, biologists didn't think it would pose a problem.
But now, with the impending closure of the Fort Richardson power plant and a growing demand for fish, that's not the case.
As a result, the idea of building a new hatchery in the Interior has slowly been gaining momentum.
While talk of building a new hatchery is in its primordial stage, it's a viable alternative for several reasons.
First, the state could build a state-of-the-art hatchery to replace the aging facilities on Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base, which were built about 20 years ago and were meant for salmon production more than trout and other resident sport fish.
''Basically the (hatchery program) is being managed on a razor's edge when you consider the deteriorating equipment, the water sources, the problems with heat and pathology concerns,'' said Mac Minard, regional supervisor for the Division of Sport Fish in Fairbanks.
''We have two facilities that have outlived their capital life,'' he said. ''The staff down there have done a marvelous job of Band-Aiding together a program that will satisfy the production demands of Southcentral and the Interior, but in the longer term a plan has got to include consideration for another facility. We need to be looking into the future.''
Modern hatcheries are built to recycle much of the water they use, unlike the hatcheries at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf, which rely on a large volume of water to be continuously run through the hatchery.
''What you could achieve with a new hatchery is make it more efficient and cost effective,'' said Milton, the manager at the Fort Richardson hatchery. ''You could cut utilities for pumping water because you wouldn't need as much. You could cut down on the heat you need available.
''It would also allow you to potentially put in rearing units that were more self cleaning and require less maintenance,'' he said.
Ideally, water used for growing fish is used for only one species because it decreases the risk of disease spreading from one batch of fish to another. That, however, requires more hot water and space than the state now has to work with.
As a result, water is sometimes passed over more than one species of fish, which poses a risk to those fish. That's the main reason the state stopped growing lake trout this year.
''In a hatchery environment you shouldn't mix water, but we aren't set up to do that,'' said Peltz. ''The hatcheries weren't built that way.''
While a pipeline that would pump water into the hatchery would cost in the neighborhood of $4 million, the cost of a new hatchery would probably be somewhere between $4 and $12 million, Peltz said. It would cost about $500,000 a year to operate it.
A hatchery built in the Interior would definitely save transportation costs. Currently, the state trucks fish from Anchorage to stocking sites in Fairbanks, Delta Junction and Glennallen in oxygenated tanks.
''We're probably spending $50,000 to $60,000 a year transporting fish,'' said Charlie Swanton, sport fish management coordinator in Fairbanks.
Neither would the state have to pay rent to the U.S. Army if it had its own hatchery built on state land.
''From a logistic standpoint it makes a huge amount of sense,'' said Peltz. ''We spend a lot of money driving fish from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
A new hatchery would also possibly allow the state to expand or add programs. For example, the state no longer produces lake trout in the hatchery because there isn't room. Neither is there room to add any programs such as northern pike.
''There are a number of people (in Fairbanks) that would like to see some roadside pike fisheries,'' Swanton said.
The Fairbanks chapter of Trout Unlimited has recently broached the idea of building a hatchery in Fairbanks and using the waste hot water produced by the Aurora Energy plant on First Avenue, which has become a topic of debate recently because some residents want the Chena River to remain frozen for recreational use. The hot water discharge keeps the river open year-round for about a half-mile stretch below the power plant.
''Maybe we could use some of the hot water and help solve a problem by building a hatchery,'' said Bill Bubbel, a member of Trout Unlimited who suggested the idea. ''We're just trying to get the door open and see if anybody wants to jump through it.''
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