Fisheries rehabilitation bill advances with support of Alaska House committee

Not everyone agreed on the bill, but most in the hearing did share something in common: concern for the future of Alaska’s fisheries. 

By Sophia Carlisle, Alaska Beacon - May 10, 2023
Sockeye salmon are schooling in Hidden Lake on the Kenai Peninsula on Sept. 20, 2011. A new bill that aims to rehabilitate fisheries advanced with support from the House Fisheries Committee on Monday. (Photo by Katrina Mueller of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The House Fisheries Committee advanced a bill on Monday aimed at rehabilitating Alaska fisheries. The bill would allow Alaskans to remove fish like salmon in state waters, incubate them and then release them in those same waters.

Not everyone agreed on the bill, but most in the hearing did share something in common: concern for the future of Alaska’s fisheries.

The bill drew support from some commercial fishers.

Commercial fisherman and former legislator Bill Thomas was supportive of it, citing the need to rehabilitate fisheries in the state.

“Every once in a while a good bill comes along, and this is one of them,” he said during public testimony.

Human intervention in growing fish populations has been controversial in Alaska.

Emily Anderson, the Alaska program director for the Wild Salmon Center is among those who do not think that hatcheries are effective at rehabilitating salmon populations. She testified in opposition of the proposed House Bill 169.

“To truly protect wild stocks and help them rebound, we need to focus our efforts on habitat rehabilitation and strong, mixed-stock fisheries management and resist the temptation to fix the problem by increasing numbers through hatchery rehabilitation,” she said.

Anderson expressed concern over the reproductive success of fish that would be incubated by efforts outlined in this permit. She said that the bill could lead to the possibility of inbreeding, which harms the reproductive success of fish.

Inbreeding, according to Anderson, can be a threat when a salmon population is bred in a hatchery. The salmon that are raised in those hatcheries are often genetically similar to each other, and if they return to their original hatcheries to spawn, she said it can lead to inbreeding. Anderson also raised a concern that if the next generation of inbred fish returns to the same spawning location and mate with wild stock, the reproductive success of the wild stock could be negatively impacted, and in turn could make the wild stock system weaker.

“I have absolutely no doubt about the good intentions behind the bill,” Anderson said. “However, rehabilitation of depleted fish populations using hatchery enhancement can have unintended consequences and actually make a really dire situation much, much worse.”

She added: “That’s a real problem with this bill.”

But Garold Pryor from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that the bill has provisions built into it to prevent this problem from happening because it is a rehabilitation bill rather than an enhancement bill that is focused on hatcheries.

Rehabilitation efforts try to restore the natural habitat of fish to what it was prior to depletion, he said in an interview. Enhancement, on the other hand, attempts to raise the level of fish beyond what the habitat is naturally capable of, he said, usually with the goal of harvesting those fish. He said this is typically where you get the concerns of inbreeding since the high demand for fish requires that the fish have a high rate of reproductive success. In enhancement projects, wild stock and hatchery fish are usually kept separate from each other to preserve the reproductive success of the native fish.

The provisions that help make this a restoration bill, according to Pryor, include a time limit on how long an individual can hold the permit, which is five years. Pryor said this five-year time span is the average lifespan of a single generation of salmon and would reduce the risk of inbreeding.

He said that the proposed permit process was fairly similar to existing aquatic resource permits, which are typically issued for purposes similar to what this bill seeks to accomplish. “We don’t have any red flags,” he said about the bill.

Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, said that he hoped that the issue of the state’s fisheries was handled with care. “I just hope that there is the necessary level of scrutiny to ensure that this is done safely,” he said.

This story was first published by Alaska Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. You can read the original here.