My Turn: Yes to wild salmon, no to HB 220

  • By ALEXUS KWACHKA
  • Monday, February 1, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Fish are selfish. They like to eat when they’re hungry, swim wherever they want and they don’t care whose place they’re taking in the stream.

They’re bullies, really.

Unfortunately, there are other bullies in the world, like some corporations who care more about making a buck off fish hatcheries than making sure our salmon stocks are safe.

A bill that lets any corporation put fish into Alaskan waters without stringent oversight is a very bad idea.

Enter HB 220, a bill that promotes a new version of hatcheries without the checks and balances already used with hatcheries in Alaska. I’m sure the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Talerico, R-Healy, means well. But Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and her wise fisheries committee should boot HB 220 from the playground.

Talerico’s bill allows anyone, regardless of whether or not they have expertise or background in biology, genetics or fisheries, to go out and harvest eggs and milt from salmon, grow them to an undetermined point in their life-cycle, and then release them into Alaskan waters.

While Talerico’s approach of loosening restrictions on hatcheries seems like it might solve salmon abundance problems along the Yukon and elsewhere, its unintended consequences could drive beleaguered wild Alaskan salmon stocks to the brink.

Unfortunately, much of the Lower 48 offers Alaska horror story after horror story of places where mixing hatchery and wild fish put a serious whack on wild salmon populations.

Decades of scientific research show that using hatcheries to boost depleted wild fisheries only mask the problems affecting wild fish and make it very difficult for wild stocks to recover.

As a long-time commercial fisherman, I see how Alaska has taken a very careful approach to hatchery development in state waters. Alaska has, for the most part, ensured the protection of wild salmon stocks.

Under current law, “a permit may not be issued for a hatchery unless the commissioner determines that the action would result in substantial public benefits and would not jeopardize natural stocks.” (AS 16.10.400(g))

In addition, as a condition of the permit the hatchery must be located in “an area where a reasonable segregation from natural stocks occurs.” (AS 16.10.420(9))

That’s because, yup, fish are selfish.

Introduced fish snatch food and habitat from wild salmon. Sometimes, the presence of hatchery fish can raise predator fish populations and more wild fish get gobbled up.

It turns out that fish are selfish in sex, too.

When hatchery salmon breed with wild salmon they reduce the fitness of wild populations by introducing hatchery fish genes that are “domesticated” and less adapted to natural environments into the wild population.

Also, when wild and hatchery populations are not separated it is very difficult to safely manage harvest rates of wild fish. Weak, wild stocks are often accidentally harvested at higher rates along with the higher numbers of hatchery fish returning to the area.

In short, if fisheries enhancements are not very carefully managed they can slow or stop wild salmon from rebounding from periods of low abundance. That’s the opposite of what we want.

Naively thinking we can override Mother Nature when it comes to the complex system of salmon adaption and genetics will send us down a slippery slope toward salmon extinction that has played out everywhere else they have attempted recovery with hatcheries.

About those selfish corporations: under Talerico’s HB 220, any Alaskan resident or an entity associated with an Alaska resident can apply for a hatchery permit. No credentials, fish knowledge or love for Alaska needed.

The stakes are very high for those river systems struggling to reach salmon escapement goals or where escapement goals are unknown. The risks are even greater when introducing, as the bill allows, an entirely new species into a system that the species does not currently occupy. This is not a job for a lay person. The risk to wild salmon and other resident fish species is too great.

Alaska’s wild salmon are beautiful, mighty and tasty. They sustain our families, our communities, our spirits.

Alaskans in turn, must be selfish in wanting to sustain our wild salmon — and stop HB 220 in its tracks.

• Alexus Kwachka was raised in Fairbanks where he held his first fishing job on the Yukon River. He currently fishes in Bristol Bay and around Kodiak, where he lives.

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