Council votes down hatchery resolution
January 12th | Carey Restino
Some say science doesn't yet support expanding a large pink salmon run into Tutka Bay
The Homer City Council on Monday voted down a resolution in support of changes to the Tutka Bay fish hatchery program despite testimony of dozens in favor of expanding the program by temporarily placing net pens at the head of Tutka Bay.
The resolution, brought forward at the suggestion of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, was requested to show support for placing the pens. The association, a nonprofit, runs the state-run facility, and a permit to place the pens in Tutka Bay is up for review by the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
But the proposed city resolution drew mixed reviews from both the public and the council. While some said the science was not yet there to support expanding a large pink salmon run into Tutka Bay, others pointed to the estimated economic impact the expanded run could have on Homer's economy. The aquaculture association estimated the program would bring 3 million pink salmon into the bay, with a ex-vessel value of $3 to $5 million.
"This could end up being a real financial asset to our community in more ways than one," said Councilman Tom Stroozas, who voted in favor of the resolution.
Councilman Heath Smith agreed, saying he didn't "buy into the fear-mongering of what the fish were going to do to the pristineness of Kachemak Bay.
"I think the potential gains far outweigh the potential harms," he said.
Many testified, however, that there was a litany of risks associated with moving pens to the head of Tutka Bay, from disruption to the bay's aesthetic, which draws tourists from around the world, to concerns about the impact all those fry and fish could have.
According to aquaculture association Executive Director Gary Fandrei, the plan calls for moving 10 net pens to the head of Tutka Bay. Currently, 12 pens hold 100 million salmon fry, but when those fry return to the lagoon, it can be a disaster. Fishermen cannot move their boats in the small area to harvest the fish, and the overcrowding causes problems for the stock.
The issue of moving the net pens is not a new one. In 2013, the association applied for a Department of Natural Resources permit to move the pens. It was first denied and then approved on appeal. But that approval was rescinded after residents of the area voiced concerns to the state. Now, the permit is up for review yet again.
Roberta Highland spoke representing the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, saying the city council should stay out of the issue.
"This is a controversial issue we really would prefer you not get into the middle of because it pits neighbors against neighbors," she said, adding that there are many concerns yet unanswered regarding the potential for the pens to pollute the habitat of the area.
Kristen Dixon, owner of Tutka Bay Lodge, said the area is too remarkable and stunning as a natural resource to risk placing the pens in. She said other places in British Columbia in similar situations had experienced problems with net pen viruses in their water, antibiotics in the water and biological algae blooms had increased.
"The world sees Tutka Bay as a valuable place to visit," she said. "We take nearly all of our guests to the headwaters of Kachemak Bay. The proposed net pens at the head of the bay would be detrimental to that experience."
Many members of the aquaculture association testified, saying the move wouldn't impact the bay at all. The plan is to put the pens at the head of Tutka Bay, which they say has little to no sustained natural runs of its own, for only a few months a year. By the end of June, the pens would be gone.
"The economic benefit is pretty clear on this project," said David Martin, association director. "It's millions of dollars. It's unfortunate that the opposition that I've heard and read is based on hearsay. It falsely demonizes this, and there's no data to support these false claims, only personal agendas."
While several fishermen testified in support of the resolution, retired fisherman Alan Parks warned the council it was walking into tough waters influenced by international market dynamics as well as a wide range of stakeholders.
"I'm for fish — I think everyone in this room is for fish and for a working waterfront," Parks said. "It would be good if the people putting this forward would work with the stakeholders and come to more of an agreement rather than bringing it forward in this contentious way."
When it came time for the council to vote on the issue, Councilman David Lewis suggested the vote be postponed until Councilmember Catriona Reynolds returned, since resolutions require four affirmative votes to pass. However that motion failed, and with Lewis and Councilmember Donna Aderhold voting in opposition, it did not pass. While Aderhold cited concerns about staying neutral and allowing the state to rule on the permit, Lewis said his no vote hinged on wanting to protect the health of the bay.