Alaska’s salmon hatcheries are economic engines

By Mead Treadwell
For The Cordova Times

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a big debate a brewing in Southcentral Alaska about fish hatcheries. The Alaska Board of Fisheries is being asked to cap hatchery production of pink salmon in the North Pacific Ocean, the second time they’ve considered this issue this year. While virtually the same number of fish have been released for decades, some people perceive an emergency and want the Board of Fisheries to slash production by 25 percent.

Alaskans should urge caution. Before taking a wrecking ball to Alaska’s fisheries, the Board of Fisheries should demand a better science program. We understand too little about what’s happening in the North Pacific Ocean. Japan, Russia and Canada also put chums, pinks, and kings in the North Pacific Ocean and have been coordinating through the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission for 26 years.

Alaska’s economy — and the health of its biggest employer, the fishing industry — is powered by our hatcheries. The Board of Fisheries should be prepared to understand the economic effects of its decisions. I’m a sport fisherman, father of a son who fished commercially to get through college. Sport, commercial, and personal use fisheries benefit greatly from Alaska’s hatchery program. I’m not a scientist, but I have helped commission major science programs in the North Pacific and Arctic region. I’m not an economist, but I have also worked to bring major economic investment to many sectors of our economy, including fisheries. Here’s what the Board of Fish needs to consider:

The state’s hatchery program has been in operation since the 1970s, and was created to reduce the economic shock in years of low natural returns. Unlike hatchery programs in the Lower 48 that were often created to replace wild populations lost to overfishing and habitat loss, Alaska’s hatcheries were designed to enhance local salmon runs and increase opportunities for commercial and sportsmen alike. By all measures, Alaska’s hatcheries have delivered on their promise over the past 40 years.

A recent economic report by the McDowell Group shows that hatchery fish make a strong contribution to Alaska’s economy, accounting for nearly a quarter of the value of the state’s salmon harvest, and adding $600 million in economic output annually. In addition to the direct economic benefits to fishermen, hatcheries are also attracting investment to the region. Silver Bay Seafoods cited the availability of large pink salmon stocks as a primary factor in its decision to invest more than $40 million into a new seafood processing plant in Valdez.

Without hatchery salmon, competition for wild stocks would be far greater and the opportunity to earn a living from commercial fishing or guiding recreational fishers would plummet.

Opportunities for personal-use and subsistence catch would also be diminished. Hatchery fish play an important role in the region’s sportfishing sector, providing plenty of salmon for residents and nonresidents alike during the annual derbies. According to McDowell, more than 80 percent of all coho harvested in the Valdez Arm and nearly all pink salmon originated at the hatchery. Returns of both species have also increased significantly over the past decade thanks to the hatchery’s production. The chance to catch an Alaska salmon is one of the highlights of a trip to the state. Visiting sport-fishermen help make tourism the second-largest private sector employer, accounting for one in eight Alaska jobs.

The increase of 20 million pink salmon eggs, which was already approved, is the second of two small increases for the Valdez hatchery since 1991, representing approximately 8 percent of its current permitted capacity. The eggs in question will grow into salmon that will generate thousands of jobs, contribute millions of dollars to the economy, and take pressure off of wild stocks.

In the meantime, the extensive research conducted by the Alaska Hatchery-Wild Interaction Salmon Study will continue on to inform future decisions. Hatcheries are economic engines for our communities, managed by science, and feeding the world healthy sustainable Alaskan protein. We should all be proud of what they contribute to our state and our economy.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries is meeting in Anchorage on October 15-16 to consider cutting the state’s non-profit salmon hatchery production. The board should reject calls to limit the number of pink salmon eggs allowed to be taken in for incubation.

Mead Treadwell is a former lieutenant governor of Alaska, former chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and co-Founder of the Prince William Sound Science Center. To learn more about the Alaska hatchery program, visit salmonhatcheriesforak.org.