King and coho salmon are raised in raceways at Crystal Lake Hatchery about 17 miles south of Petersburg on Mitkof Island. (Alexis Kenyon/KFSK)

The board of a regional non-profit hatchery association may change its releases for king salmon from Crystal Lake hatchery south of Petersburg. That’s after the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association lost a portion of its state funding for that facility. The SSRAA board is hoping that funding can be restored. However, in March they’ll consider reducing or relocating Crystal Lake king salmon normally caught by the sport fishing fleet if it’s not.

Crystal Lake, on Mitkof Island south of Petersburg, produces king and coho salmon, with the chinook released at sites near Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Craig. It lost a portion of its funding this year with the end of a state sport fishing license surcharge. Crystal Lake is owned by the state but run by the Ketchikan-based hatchery non-profit. And the SSRAA board is making tough decisions this year on program cuts and new revenue sources because of several years of poor salmon returns that normally would help pay for operations.

Board member Chris Guggenbickler of Wrangell summed up the discussion on Crystal Lake by the board’s production committee.

“We’re hoping through the legislature that there’s a possibility that this will get reintroduced into this budget, if not vetoed by the governor,” Guggenbickler said. “There’s also some talk about possibly some treaty monies coming, to help support some of these king salmon.”

That would mean funding through the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada as one source for filling the gap. As for state funding, the Dunleavy administration’s bills to continue the sport license surcharge last year failed to pass in 2020’s COVID shortened session. Those could be re-introduced in 2021, or the legislature could decide other ways to fund the program.

This month the SSRAA production committee passed a motion that Crystal Lake king salmon sport fish releases will be reduced if there’s no solution to the loss of state funding.  That decision wouldn’t be made until the board’s meeting in March however. The full board also passed that motion.

“Yeah I think we got a pretty good handle on cost per smolt and it’s real easy do some math if some money doesn’t show up, we can make sure that we’re sending king salmon to the commercial fleet that we’re paying for and if there’s any left over then they can go to the direction of the sport programs or whatever’s left,” said board member Dave Klepser of Ketchikan. “So I think it’s pretty simple and straight forward.”

The state funding was only a portion of the money used to pay for operations at Crystal Lake. The program is funded to the tune of 517,300 dollars. $200,000 came from the sport fish license surcharge program. The other 317,300 dollars is a mix of federal and state money, mostly from a federal sport fish funding program, commonly called the Dingell-Johnson Act, for the lawmakers who penned that bill. Besides that state money, the hatchery association is mainly funded by a three percent tax on commercial landings and by contracted fishing near release sites, during years of better salmon returns.

SSRAA’s production manager Bill Gass was asked whether a 200,000 dollar cut would mean a staff reduction at Crystal Lake.

“In order to reach an actual savings of 200,000 dollars, the cuts would have to be really severe and might even involve personnel,” Gass said. “In order to reach the accounting number, all we would have to do is remove 300-thousand king salmon. That can be accomplished in several ways. If it was at all possible, those fish could be redirected somewhere besides the sportfish program. If that were not possible, the only way to reach that would be to kill those fish.”

Crystal Lake sees returns of around three thousand kings to the Petersburg area each year. Many of those fish are caught by resident and non-resident sport anglers in the Wrangell Narrows, near Blind Slough and a relatively new release site near City Creek in Frederick Sound.

Petersburg’s mayor Mark Jensen reported on the decision by the SSRAA board to the Petersburg assembly December 21st.

“What we understand that to mean is the hatchery will still be functioning at full capacity,” Jensen told the assembly. “The fish may not be released in our local waters to support sports fishing at Blind Slough or out by City Creek, but that depends on whether or not that 200,000 dollars is restored or not.”

Meanwhile the state’s draft plan for sport fishery enhancement includes continued king salmon releases at Blind Slough and City Creek. That plan is out for public comment and review until the end of January.