A Sitka-based hatchery organization has been granted approval for a new remote release site for chum salmon in Thomas Bay on the mainland near Petersburg. The hatchery chums, traditionally released closer to Sitka, could be an early season opportunity for commercial seiners and gillnetters. But the location has been a concern for commercial trollers and sport fishermen.
The Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association or NSRAA applied for a change to the hatchery permit that organization has with the state. NSRAA has been seeking a different release site for some of the young salmon produced at the Hidden Falls Hatchery on eastern Baranof Island.
“It gives us another release site where we can put Hidden Falls stock and hope we get a much better marine survival then we’ve been seeing at Hidden Falls the last 3-4 years,” said NSRAA general manager Steve Reifenstuhl.
Hidden Falls chum returns numbered in the millions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Those chum return in the early summer and can give the commercial purse seine fleet a lucrative catch before the pink salmon shows up. In the last few years, returns have only totaled a couple hundred thousand and fishing opportunity has been scarce. Reifenstuhl and others suspect whales and fish have keyed in on the annual release of young chums in Chatham Strait and have been eating them up. He’s hoping that won’t be the case with the new site in Thomas Bay.
“Now the predators may find the release site at Thomas Bay at some point but I think it takes some years just like Hidden Falls had tremendous survival through the mid 1990s and then kinda ups and downs in the early 2000s and now it’s just doing dismal,” Reifenstuhl said.
NSRAA applied to move up to 40 million Hidden Falls chum to the new release site. Reifenstuhl said the first few years that number will be closer to 25 million. The young fry will be held in net pens at a site near Ruth Island inside Thomas Bay for several months until they’re released.
“The net pens are on order and moving from South America, Chile to Seattle, then Seattle to Petersburg,” he said. “And they’ll be put together right in Petersburg and towed out to Thomas Bay. We’re hoping it’ll all come together at the right time and the fish will be delivered in late February, maybe early March.”
The proposal was tabled a year ago awaiting more baseline sampling of what other fish could be impacted by a new release and the anticipated commercial fishing it would generate in Thomas Bay.
NSRAA contracted for purse seining in July of 2016 with Fish and Game biologists sampling the catch. The fishing produced a total of 37 salmon from four days of fishing in seven different locations in the bay. The fish were pink, chum and sockeye and some had originated from hatcheries elsewhere in Southeast. A Fish and Game Regional planning team voted to recommend the new remote release at a meeting at the end of November. Flip Pryor is regional resource development biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We did get some people from both sides of the issue spoke on that,” Pryor said of the meeting. “The vast majority of it was in support. It’s not really a democratic process where whoever gets the most votes is gonna win, everything’s taken into consideration but there was a lot of support in this case.”
The Petersburg borough assembly, chamber of commerce and multiple commercial fishing groups supported the proposal. The Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance estimates the value of the returning chums could be around three and a half million dollars at the docks. Southeast Alaska Seiners and United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters also wrote letters in support.
A number of local commercial trollers and sport fishermen signed a petition opposing the proposal. That petition faulted the test fishing as too limited and it highlighted the potential impacts of returning chums on the troll fishery outside of Thomas Bay. Retired ADFG crab biologist Tim Koeneman also wrote a letter in opposition, voicing concerns over the potential impact 40 million chum fry could have on other marine species in the bay.
Fish and Game typically spells out the boundaries of what’s called a “terminal harvest area” surrounding a hatchery release site. It’s where intense net fishing occurs in the peak season as commercial boats try to net all of the returning fish. Pryor noted that boundaries of a terminal harvest area have not yet been established. “That was one of the sticking points was how do you keep it available for people who wanna go crabbing and stuff like that, or go to the cabin there. And NSRAA was very accommodating at the meeting and they have a history of working with people for their terminal release sites.”
A Forest Service cabin and trail at Cascade Creek is not far away from the planned release site and small cruise ships and tour boats anchor in the area.
Commercial fishing would be late June into early July, with seiners setting nets inside the bay and gillnetters and trollers intercepting those chums on the way in.
NSRAA’s Reifenstuhl acknowledged that some will continue to oppose the new remote release and he likened it to NSRAA’s chum release at Deep Inlet near Sitka.
“There’s people who wish we didn’t have a Deep Inlet fishery,” Reifenstuhl said. “There are people who wish there wasn’t a hatchery at Hidden Falls. I can just say we will operate with responsibility and try to address people’s concerns and try to alleviate conflicts if they do occur.”
Reifenstuhl said the hatchery organization is willing to design the harvest area to avoid halibut fishing spots and recreational use of the cabin.
NSRAA has already started advertising for contract workers to help rear the chum fry in Thomas Bay starting in mid-February and running into June.
With fry going into the water there this year, the first adult chums will be returning there in 2019-20.
NSRAA still will be releasing about three quarters of it’s Hidden Falls fry near that hatchery on Baranof and commercial fishing could still happen there in 2017 depending on returns. Reifenstulh is expecting about 240-thousand chums again, enough for collecting brood stock and potentially a few commercial openings.