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Highly anticipated study may hold answers to Alaska hatchery debate

The multi-year study is already shedding new light on hatchery-origin and wild fish interactions, and could have wide-ranging implications for the fishery and its MSC-certified status, experts told IntraFish.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) is getting closer to understanding how its commercial salmon hatcheries impact wild populations: a hotly debated topic that may hold implications for the state's $452 million (€402.8 million) hatchery program and its eco-label status.

The multi-year study, known as the Alaska Hatchery Research Project (AHRP), has already yielded new insights on the interactions between hatchery-origin fish that have spawned and produced adult offspring with both wild and other hatchery-origin fish.

ADFG delivered some preliminary results from the multi-year study to state legislators in March, highlighting a few key findings, one of which was the discovery that female hatchery-produced pink salmon from Prince William Sound (PWS) were about half as productive at reproducing as wild pink salmon from the same area.

Bill Templin, ADFG's chief salmon fisheries scientist for its Commercial Fisheries division, told IntraFish the study, now in its sixth year, is the first of its kind in many respects.

While it has been assumed the state's hatchery salmon and wild salmon have interacted, this is the first study to actually measure that interaction.

For the first time through genetic testing, researchers were able to match offspring back to a parent fish, and use an earbone mark to determine whether the fish were natural or from hatcheries.

"We had to map the genome of pink salmon, which hasn't been done before," he said. "Here we did it as a means to get the tools to do the parentage work we needed to do."

The study is also unique in that it focuses on pink and chum, high-volume, high-value species in the Prince William Sound. Very few studies on those species have been conducted, Templin said, and the fact that the research is being conducted in the natural setting of wild streams without infrastructure for support makes the data collected even more useful.

The preliminary results have unknown implications for hatchery management in the state, Templin said.

The results are only one data point out of many, he cautioned, noting the early findings only show results from one stream out of several being analyzed. The research is being conducted on a total of five streams in Prince William Sound.

"We can't say it's consistent across years, streams and even-odd year declines," he said. "We may have an environmental effect."

All eyes on Alaska

Perhaps most critically for the economics of the Prince William Sound fishery -- one of the state's most valuable salmon harvesting regions -- the study may have implications on the salmon's Marine Stewardship Council certification (MSC), a source who's been involved with the Alaska salmon certification process told IntraFish.

“This was part of a condition that has been within the MSC certification process stemming back to the 2006 and 2013 Prince William Sound evaluation,” he said.

In 2013, Prince William Sound was not included MSC's re-certification of the Alaska salmon fishery, the fishery choosing to remain under assessment while research was conducted on hatchery impacts.

The Prince William Sound salmon fishery was eventually added to the 2013 Alaska salmon MSC certificate in 2017 via a “scope extension” assessment that focused specifically on its its hatchery supplementation.

The MSC stated in its 2017 re-certification of Prince William Sound, it used the findings from the AHRP hatchery study to determine whether or not "the impacts of wild and hatchery salmon interactions are low and meet the sustainability requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard."

“It’s an important one to follow up on," the source told IntraFish of the study. "If it’s determined the hatchery fish spawning in the wild have an adverse impact on wild salmon, that would mean the fishery would not be re-certified.”

Fisheries certification group MRAG, who assessed Prince William Sound for approval in 2015, said in a re-assessment report for the MSC this April that the Alaska salmon fishery should be re-certified through 2023. But it noted a broader concern "regarding the potential ecosystem effects of large-scale hatchery production of salmon throughout the Pacific."

"Certifying bodies are looking at this study," said Templin, acknowledging the ongoing controversy over the Prince William Sound hatchery.

"We've never had this information before," he added. "I can't tell you ultimately how it's going to work out."

Debate over US hatcheries heats up

The findings have put Alaska in a challenging position, given the ongoing controversy over the potentially harmful impacts to wild salmon from hatcheries, Templin said.

The issue is the highlight of a new film from US outdoor clothing giant Patagonia that questions the role fish hatcheries and fish farms play in reducing wild salmon populations.

"We're in a place right now where we'll be responding to questions, concerns and charges that may or may not apply to Alaska hatcheries," Templin said.

Templin doesn't find much in common between the film's concerns, which are centered on hatcheries focused on replacement and restoration, and Alaska's program.

Patagonia's film is focused on US hatcheries operating to replace -- not supplement -- fisheries, he said, pointing out that Alaska's program has always been aimed at supplementing natural runs.

Patagonia's film claims that hatchery fish, due to inbreeding and domestication, will ultimately cause hatchery populations and wild populations to trend toward zero.

But hatcheries have proven to do the opposite for Alaska's wild population, which has remained relatively stable, and has even grown.

Data from 2018 provided by ADFG to state lawmakers shows Alaska's contemporary salmon fishery enhancement program has provided over 1.8 billion salmon to the state's fisheries since it was introduced in 1973, without any obvious negative effects on the wild salmon population.

91687d41f79b750b0eb1792f293bd5ae Photo: ADF&G

Success story

Today, there are 25 hatcheries operated by private nonprofit (PNP) corporations made up of commercial salmon fishermen in southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and Kodiak, who pay a self-imposed tax on their landings that helps fund the operation of the associations.

Templin attributes the success of Alaska's salmon hatcheries to the state's fisheries management policies, which include in-season escapement-based management, restricted fishing, siting hatcheries away from significant wild stocks, and using local fish for broodstock.

The estimated statewide first wholesale value of the commercial hatchery harvest was $452 million (€402.8 million) in 2018, according to the Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report. The statewide ex-vessel value of the commercial hatchery harvest was $176 million (€156.8 million).

Chum salmon accounted for 57 percent of the value of the hatchery harvest, followed by pink at 24 percent, sockeye at 11 percent, coho at 5 percent, and Chinook salmon at 3 percent.

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