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Ocean ranching: shepherds not cowboys.

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The problems Alaska salmon fishermen and processors may face today are nothing compared to the dire state of the industry 30 years ago. Wild salmon stocks up and down the Gulf of Alaska were crashing. The number of fish returning to Prince William Sound was so low the State closed seining completely in 1972 and 1974.

In response, orders and resources came forth from both the governor's mansion and the Legislature to help the commercial fishing industry and to rehabilitate the wild salmon stocks. "The intent was to supplement wild stocks, not to replace them," said Samuel Rabung, the State's coordinator of hatchery programs for the Division of Commercial Fisheries. "It wasn't about saving endangered species--it was just to add fish to the salmon fishing industry."

Thirty years on, the efforts of Alaskans from the governor on down have logged spectacular success. About 5 billion salmon fry and smolts (one-yearold salmon) are released into the North Pacific from Japan, Russia, Korea and Canada, as well as the U.S. Fully a third of those--about 1.6 billion fish--are incubated and released by Alaska's 30 or so hatcheries.

A 2008 report states 45 million returning hatchery-reared adult salmon provided $110 million--29 percent of the ex-vessel value (what fishermen receive)--of the statewide common property commercial harvest. Hatchery fish now constitute the bulk of many commercial harvests, such as the chum and pink salmon harvests in Prince William Sound.

The hatcheries help support themselves by selling a portion of the adult fish returning to the hatcheries another 15 million in 2008, for a total of 60 million adult hatchery salmon returning to Alaska. Five large regional hatchery associations also collect a 2 percent to 3 percent tax on the value of catches by fishermen/members.

"Ocean ranching of salmon is considered the largest agricultural industry in Alaska," Rabung said.

FRED AND THE REGIONALS

In 1971, the Legislature authorized creation of the Division of Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement and Development (FRED) within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), charged with operating State hatcheries--Alaska had 20 State-run facilities at its 1983 peak.

Hatcheries differ from fish farms in that the hatcheries raise the fish for only a small part of their lives. Chum and pink salmon are released into the ocean as tiny fry. Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon require a full year in fresh water before they return to the sea. Fish farms raise their fish to adulthood and sell them right out of the net pens. Fish farms have been criticized for issues concerning crowding, disease and pollution.

In 1974, the Private Nonprofit Hatchery Act allowed private-sector, not-for-profit independent corporations to build and operate salmon hatcheries. Five regional nonprofits were to oversee their respective areas: Southern Southeast Alaska, Northern Southeast, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and the Kodiak area. Over the next 20 years, many of the Staterun hatcheries were turned over to one of the regional nonprofits.

Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC)--one of the largest regionals--operates five hatcheries. PWSAC built the Armin K. Koerning Hatchery, 90 miles west of Cordova and the Wally Noerenbery Hatchery, 20 miles east of Whittier. They also operate three former State hatcheries at Cannery Creek east of Whitter, Main Bay in western Prince William Sound, and Gulkana near Paxson. To supply these far-flung facilities, PWSAC maintains a one-acre distribution center in Anchorage. Materials are trucked to Whittier and transferred to a landing craft for delivery to the hatcheries. Headquartered in Cordova, PWSAC has 44 year-round employees and another 80 seasonal workers. Their annual operating budget is about $7 million.

The regional aquaculture associations also participate in habitat restoration projects, usually in conjunction with ADF&G or other agencies. Along with operating Trail Lakes Hatchery and two others, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) is monitoring the Susitna River to ascertain the number of northern pike, a non-native species that was introduced into the area and whose population has exploded in the last decade.

"Northern pike are moving into systems that have historically salmon-bearing systems and they're having significant impact on some of those," said Gary Fandrei, CIAA's executive director. In the Cook Inlet drainage, he says, are a number of lakes and streams that are okay at producing salmon "as long as the pike aren't there."

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MOM AND POPS

Most aquaculture associations have a colorful story to tell about their early days--often involving off-the-shelf piping and tubs, dressing entirely in rubber and working incredibly long hours at key times of the salmons' life cycle.

The Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA), based in Sitka, started with 50,000 chinook salmon eggs incubated in large jars and reared them in Sears swimming pools.

"It's gone from there to incubating 62 million chum eggs, 5 million chinook eggs and several hundred thousand coho," said Lon Garrison, NSRAA's director of operations. NSRAA operates two hatcheries (a third is being developed) on $5.2 million annual budget. It has 27 permanent employees and another dozen or so seasonal workers.

The Gunnuk Creek Hatchery in Kake started as a local high school project and grew to be, at one time, the largest private employer in town. Gunnuk Creek is one of a handful of non-regional hatcheries, which used to be called "Morn and Pops." These nonprofits do not collect the 2 percent to 3 percent fish tax, and are allowed to take a higher percentage of returning adult salmon.

Most of Gunnuk's production is chum salmon, a fish most Americans reject, but which has strong markets overseas.

"In a lot of Eastern European markets like Russia, they like our fish because they're affordable to them and because they are wild," said Zach Olson, Gunnuk's assistant manager. While the return to the hatchery has been less than hoped, chum salmon prices have recently increased from 25 cents to 30 cents per pound to as high as 75 cents per pound.

MARKETING YOUR OWN

In the early 1990s, the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (SSRAA) faced devastatingly poor prices on the chum salmon that returned to their flagship hatchery at Neet's Bay, 40 air miles from Ketchikan. Being far from the ocean, the returning chums had darker skin and paler flesh than the market desired.

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One year, said SSRAA General Manager John Burke, only two processors were interested in the darkskinned, light-fleshed chum and they bid 17 cents per pound. SSRAA's managers had hoped for 40 cents to 50 cents per pound. While they tried to crunch the numbers to keep operating, one of the processors dropped out. The other processor came forward with a new price--only 9 cents per pound.

"The fishermen on the board (of directors) all said, 'We'd rather throw (the salmon) away,'" recounted Burke. He said SSRAA has been driven to market its own fish and has come out equal or ahead nearly every year to what they would have gotten at the dock.

The pale chum is marketed as "fish flakes," which Burke describes as "Japanese peanut butter." He said a Tokyo kid's lunch might be rice balls, flavored with some fish flakes and a colorful garnish, "like we would have a peanut butter sandwich."

Pink salmon, another abundant species, are now being marketed as salmon burgers and other consumer end products. Burke said SSRAA is talking about a program for pinks since prices have risen from as low as 5 cents a pound to 30 cents a pound and up.

SHARING THE WEALTH

Alaska's success is due to the State's efforts, but also those of pioneering independents like the late Ladd Macauley, a Juneau biology teacher who started a hatchery in his back yard that grew to a return of 20,000 fish into a formerly barren stream. Thirty years and a few hatcheries later, Douglas Island Pink and Chum (DIPAC) has 27 permanent employees, 30 to 40 seasonal ones and an annual budget of $4.5 million.

DIPAC produces fish for the commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen. They educate 100,000 tourists each year about Alaska fisheries at the Macauley Salmon Hatchery. They are improving salmon habitat and stocking lakes in partnership with ADF&G and the Canadian authorities.

Way across the Gulf in Kodiak public schools, the life cycle of the salmon is part of the fourth grade curriculum. During the egg take, each class visits the Pillar Creek Hatchery, one of two run by the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association (KRAA). Each class of fourth graders then takes 500 eggs back to their classroom and hatches the eggs in fish tanks, rears them all winter and then releases the fry into local lakes.

Those in the Alaska hatchery business say the State's success is due to management policies that give clear priority to the needs of wild salmon in every single decision and include a wide range of people in planning. But Alaska's vast unspoiled habitat gets credit, too.

"There aren't many places in the world that can still do what we have the ability to do," said NSRAA's Lon Garrison. "We have a healthy, wild fish population and we have intact habitat. We have a system in Alaska that takes care of the wild fish--and the whole (ocean ranching) program is based on that premise."
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Title Annotation:FISHERIES
Author:Swagel, Will
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Words:1540
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