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49Th Report: Wild vs. Hatched Salmon

By Adam Pinsker, Multimedia Political Reporter, apinsker@ktuu.com
Published On: May 20 2013 08:05:00 AM AKDT

Channel 2 took a tour of a fish hatchery in Juneau, Alaska.

JUNEAU -

There is a bit of biology that's been around for quite a while that helps out certain fish populations when nature falls a bit short.  They are of course fish hatcheries.

Hatcheries are found in various sections of the state and produce everything from salmon to trout.

Channel 2 recently toured a hatchery where biologists say there's no difference in wild natural salmon and the kind that get a helping hand from humans.

The folks at Douglas Island Pink and Chum, or DIPAC are far from dormant even with a late winter snowfall in Juneau.

"We have people here 24-7, we're running water 24-7, so our operating costs are really high, we're raising live animals," said DIPAC's Director, Eric Prestigard.  "They require a lot of care, so to be able to do all that, takes a lot of money."

DIPAC came into existence nearly four decades ago after the Alaska Legislature created the Fisheries Rehabilitation Enhancement and Development Division, also known as FRED.

FRED eventually merged with the Department of Fish and Game in the early 90's after fulfilling its mission of boosting dwindling salmon stocks.  Its mission remains the same today.

"Natural production is our biggest bread and butter, and the fishermen all understand that," said Hatchery Program Coordinator for Fish & Game, Sam Rabung. "The prime directive of fish and game is to protect and maintain that natural productivity."

DIPAC is one of several non-profit hatcheries in Alaska.  Its board of directors is made up of 32 people representing gillnetters, set netters, commercial fisherman, subsistence, the general public and the Juneau Borough.

Currently DIPAC is rearing only four of the five species of salmon: chum, Chinook, Coho and Sockeye.
DIPAC’s goal is to enhance the northern inside waters of Southeast Alaska.

"20, 30 percent of the Salmon catch is fish produced by enhancing organizations statewide, that's a big deal," added Prestigard.

DIPAC isn't the only organization tracking salmon.  Paula Dobbyn of Trout Unlimited led a group of mostly commercial and sport fisherman to Washington D.C. this March to lobby Congress to pass legislation called Tongass 77.

"We've identified 77 high value watersheds for salmon, that are currently open to development,” said Dobbyn.  “We would really like to see the forest service manage those watersheds for salmon first, because salmon are such an important species for the region."

Dobbyn fears that if these watersheds aren’t protected, salmon runs could decline sharply.  She says mining; logging and privatization are contributing to the decline of salmon in California, Oregon and Washington.

"They're people whose livelihoods are directly tied to healthy habitats, healthy forests,” added Dobbyn.  “They went back there with the message, hey things are good in the Tongass now for Salmon, but they could be a lot better."

DIPAC is also doing its part in making sure salmon enhancement efforts aren't jeopardizing wild stocks.  They do this by determining the interaction between the enhanced fish and wild fish and if there's any sort of reduction in fitness by having enhanced fish stray into a wild system.

"It’s a 12 year study, we're going to track these fish, and we’ll do a genetic pedigree, so we'll be able to say,” said Prestigard.

Scientists say there are environmental elements beyond their control that will always jeopardize natural production, but overall, the state of southeast Alaska’s salmon is strong.

 "On the whole, the trend for Alaska Salmon is good, there are certainly some stocks that are down right now, people are very aware of Chinook in Cook Inlet, there stocks are down, Southeast stocks are doing well,” added Fish & Game’s Rabung.

At DIPAC, the millions of salmon incubating here will eventually go through the same spawning process as their wild counterparts and Prestigard invites you to taste the difference.

"We could sit you down right now and have 4 different plates of salmon, and one or two of them could be an enhanced fish and you would never know the difference."

For more than a generation state leaders, fisherman and conservationists have sought to make a difference by preserving Alaska’s salmon stocks.

CORRECTION: In "49th Report: The State of Fish" broadcast, Channel 2 News inaccurately referenced a statement by Paula Dobbyn's of Trout Unlimited. In Adam Pinsker's story, "Wild Salmon vs. Farmed Salmon," Dobbyn's refered to declining runs of salmon as Pinsker referenced Southeast Alaska. Dobbyn's quote was in actuality a direct reference to declining salmon runs in the Lower 48 in states such as California and Oregon, NOT in Southeast Alaska. We sincerely apologize for the error.