What is the Future of Hatcheries in Alaska

Since British Colombia dropped its Sustainable Fishery Certification in the fall of 2019, citing concerns around the harmful impacts of hatchery releases on wild salmon,  Alaskan fishers and managers have had to do some soul searching.  How are our hatchery operations effecting our wild salmon? How good a job is Alaska doing at monitoring these impacts? What policies are appropriate when we have limited data? Can Alaska afford not to know what’s going on in our fisheries? These and other questions were up for discussion at the annual meeting of the Board of Fish Hatchery Committee meeting in Anchorage on March 7. The stakes of these discussions are no less than the future of salmon in our state.

ADF&G Chief Fisheries Scientist for Salmon, Bill Templin, began his talk by telling the board why hatchery-wild interactions matter, saying that the Alaska Constitution and policy require that the department protect wild salmon populations from “harmful and adverse” interactions with hatchery releases. Harmful and adverse interactions can be genetic, as well as competition for resources.  At this point, the department is only researching genetic interactions, which happen when hatchery populations stray into wild streams and reproduce with wild fish. Mr. Templin explained that “while straying is a natural part of salmon behavior, it is also the means by which hatchery salmon potentially affect long-term productivity of wild populations.” The department is not looking at competitive interactions with other populations like king an coho, the department announced that it will be creating a new staff position to look into Carrying Capacity, Climate and Competition: “we are addressing it within our limited means at this time,” said Sam Rebung.

The department’s presentations to the Hatchery Committee focused on the results of the Alaska Hatchery Research Project, which is digging into the extent that hatchery releases are straying into wild streams and how they are effecting the fitness of the wild fish.  Mr. Templin explained that genes from hatchery fish entering wild populations could lead to reductions in genetic diversity, as well as the introduction of poorly adapted traits. Reductions in genetic diversity would result from the small gene pool used to produce almost two billion hatchery fish annually. Poorly adapted traits would result from “relaxed selection” in the hatchery environment, where 80-90 percent of fish survive: “conditions in the hatcheries do not select out the same fish as the conditions in the wild,” Mr. Templin explained.  

Kyle Shed, who is the geneticist in the department leading the Hatchery Research Program, gave a status report from the research project. The preliminary results show that hatchery fish who stray into wild streams are 42-60 percent less likely to reproduce than the wild fish there. The Principle Geneticist at ADF&G’s Gene Conservation Laboratory, Chris Habicht,  says that the department is still working on interpreting these results and are waiting for more data to come in. The results could indicate that hatchery fish have weaker genetics than wild fish. If that were the case, then straying could result in the long-term degradation of wild salmon genetics. The low reproductive success of hatchery fish could also be because they are strays and don’t know where to spawn. The project will go on to look at the reproductive success of their grandchildren to try to pin down if these results are in fact related to weak genetics.

Mr. Habicht went on to summarize some of the general information that the department is looking at that would help assess genetic impacts of hatchery fish on wild populations. On the one hand, there is a chance that “hatcheries can come in and wipe out the diversity of wild salmon;” on the other hand, the department is still seeing genetic structure in pink salmon in Prince William Sound, which is by far the largest releases site for hatchery fish in the sate—so in the 40 years of operation, hatcheries haven’t wiped out all the genetic diversity of pink salmon in the region. On the one hand, the Alaska Hatchery Research Project has found a lot of hatchery fish in Prince William Sound streams: over 10 percent of fish in wild streams are from hatcheries, on average and some streams have a very high percentage of hatchery-origin fish (over 75%). The department has also seen hatchery fish from Prince William Sound stray into Lower Cook Inlet in significant numbers. On the other hand, it does not appear that the run timing of wild pink salmon is shifting toward hatchery run timing (which is a genetic trait); the fact that hatchery and wild salmon have distinct run timings would indicate the maintenance of genetic differences; however, the department is beginning a closer review or historic run timing to verify this.

Mr. Templin indicated that the Department does “not want to be caught flat footed” on hatchery harm to wild populations and is considering using a model used by Washington State to assess hatchery policy from a biological, social, economic an cultural standpoint. In 2019 the Washington Academy of Sciences  published “Science of Salmon Hatcheries: Summary of a Workshop organized by the Washington State Academy of Sciences for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife” which gave key guidance to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife based on a comprehensive assessment of biology, economics and culture. Sources of funding for an Alaska workshop will need to be established.

In the final presentation to the Board, the Department of Law confirmed that the Board of Fish has the authority to amend permits issued to hatcheries to alter the source and number of eggs taken for brood stock, as outlined in Alaska Statute 16.10.440(b).

The day-long meeting closed with some discussion of funding for research. Several industry members called for greater state investment into fishery research. Tim Moore, Prince William Sound seiner, long time board member for the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation  and current president said that as ADF&G’s budget is cut, “the first thing that is gone is the research,” but that it is in the interest of hatchery operators to support the research to protect wild fish. Susan Dourghty with the South East Alaska Seiners Association out of Kechikan said, “if there were more money in the budget to do research then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion [on hatchery impacts to wild populations]” but she she sees a bigger picture, “this isn’t just about salmon, this is about baseline research that is needed to keep conducting our fisheries if the economy of Alaska is going to continue to grow and move forward in the future.”


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