By Marie L. Monyak
April 21, 2006
Ketchikan, Alaska - Mike Round, Assistant General Manager of the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (SSRAA), treated the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday to an informative and entertaining presentation on the SSRAA operations, primarily Neets Bay.
Round's presentation was timely in that Southern Southeast commercial fishermen are gearing up for their summer season. SSRAA is one of five private, non-profit regional aquaculture associations in Alaska, funded primarily by a tax that commercial fishermen imposed on themselves to produce enough future generations of salmon to provide for an economically stable industry.
SSRAA operates 4 hatcheries in Southern Southeast; Whitman Lake, Burnett Inlet, Crystal Lake and Neets Bay. These hatcheries are responsible for the spawning, incubation and short-term rearing of the young salmon until they are ready for release in the wild where they forage in the ocean like any other wild stock until they return to spawn anywhere from 3 to 6 years later.
Round wanted to dispel certain misconceptions or misinterpretations that have caused confusion for many people. Round explained, "Whitman Lake is a kind of misnomer, I'd like to point out that it's actually Herring Cove." Most people in Ketchikan are not aware of Whitman Lake as it's off the road system but Herring Cove, south of Ketchikan, is well known to everyone and locals often refer to the hatchery as such.
A phrase that causes a great deal of confusion is "salmon ranching" or "salmon aquaculture" since it's often confused with fish farming. John Burke, the General Manager of SSRAA appeared in the video and explained the difference. Burke said, "A fish farm is where you keep the fish for it's entire life, it's fed prepared food, kept in pens, doesn't swim in the open ocean, avoid predators, interact with the environment, it doesn't live the way a fish would normally live."
At a salmon hatchery or "ranch," the fish are released into the open ocean when they're ready and the only difference between them and their wild cousins is their clipped fin which identifies them as coming from a hatchery. All salmon hatcheries in Alaska are "ranches" not farms.
Another phrase commonly heard is "salmon enhancement." According to Round, "Enhancement is an unfortunate term. A lot of people think that it means genetic engineering or something similar. That is no where near the truth. We're nothing more than a maternity ward for little fish." He continued to explain, "Instead of having a ninety percent mortality rate from the fish going into the stream and spawning to the smolt stage, we have a ninety percent survival rate. So what we do is give them a leg up on the journey through life and let them go as soon as they are smolted and ready to go into salt water."
"SSRAA went through the expense of creating a video [because] there were some inconsistencies with the stories people were telling," Round explained. "We have a lot of tourist's showing up at Herring Cove and the people that would guide the tours were not familiar with the hatchery or fish management and they would tell the tourist's that the reason the hatchery was there is because the natural stocks were depleted in the state. Everybody was putting their own spin on it so the idea was to get the story right, put it in a video form and make it entertaining as well as informative and get it out there to the visitors and residents."
Before showing the video, Round told the audience that it was filmed by John Sabella, who according to his website, specializes in nautical media. Sabella has 20 years experience in newspapers, magazines and videos. He has authored books, articles and video script and has contributed to numerous trade publications. Sabella has produced works for many businesses and organizations, not the least of which are Trident Seafoods Corp., Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Southeast Alaska Seiners Assoc., Alaska Troll Salmon Association and the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Round also read a letter written by John Sund who was instrumental in helping to write the legislation in 1975 that allowed the formation of the Regional Aquaculture Associations. Sund was also SSRAA's legal council involved in writing up their by-laws and setting up the corporation. Round quoted Sund, "The entire non-profit regional aquaculture enterprise in Alaska is totally unique in the history of the United States in terms of fishery management, and because of the great people that have worked at the system, it is a success. All the original goals and objectives of the program have been exceeded many times over. The economic benefit to the region is in the millions and millions of dollars and it will continue to generate tremendous benefits for the years and decades to come."
Having read the letter, Round started the video. It began like an episode of Wild Kingdom with salmon swimming up stream to spawn, bears frolicking in the streams feeding on the salmon and birds picking the carcasses clean in picturesque Southeast Alaska. Having established the fact that salmon are an integral part of our eco-system and an important food source for the local wildlife, the movie proceeded to document the Neets Bay Hatchery, located 28 miles north of Ketchikan on Revillagigedo Island.
The audience watched in fascination as salmon swam up the ladder to the raceway where they were electro-shocked and sorted by sex. Once the eggs were extracted from the females and milt from the males, the hatchery workers spawned the babies in 5 gallon buckets which they then carried to incubators that provide the controlled environment necessary for the eggs to mature.
The species shown in the video at that point were Chum salmon which are released into the open ocean after only 2 months. Round explained after the film that Neets Bay raises four species but predominately Chum salmon as they're considered money fish, "They're a bit more valuable than pink salmon and the other reason is that we don't have to hold them for a year to feed them. They're one of the least expensive to raise."
Back to the film, the audience watched as the SSRAA seiner Gwendolyn captured returning salmon in Neets Bay. The bay is fairly deep with no significant wild salmon population since its 8 miles to the mouth of the bay. The fishing crew then transferred the fish from the seiner to floating pens that would be used to transport the fish to an enclosure surrounded by a barrier net that serves to keep fish out of the creek rather than in.
Sabella, whose voice was heard narrating the film said, "Without the barrier, the hatchery would be overrun with unwanted fish. The hatchery only wants enough mature fish inside the barrier to serve as brood stock for future generations." At the time of filming the hatchery's goal was to extract and fertilize 106 million chum salmon eggs.
One had to wonder about the fate of the thousands of salmon that were kept away from the hatchery by the barrier net. This is where something called "cost recovery" comes into play. Sabella continued narrating, "The Gwendolyn captures the surplus salmon right in front of the hatchery. Their catch is offloaded onto tenders and transported to the processor anchored in a quiet cove a few miles away."
The proceeds from this sale go directly back into the operation of the hatcheries. The narrator stressed the importance of the operation when he stated, "Producing brood stock for future generations and engaging in enough cost recovery fishing to pay the bills is crucial to the hatchery's existence."
After the film, Round explained how in the beginning, in the 1970's, commercial fishermen were given the choice to access themselves 3 percent of their gross to create the hatcheries which they would benefit from in the form of a more stable resource. Answering a question in the audience, Round was able to better explain the tax, "The commercial fishermen have a 3 percent ex-vessel tax. Ex means off the boat; from the boat to the processor is what the fishermen are taxed on, as opposed to the wholesale price the processor gets."
He further explained, "We do get sportsfish monies which go to raising Chinook and Coho." Speaking about sportsfishing, Round was proud to inform the audience of SSRAA's contribution to the Ketchikan Salmon Derby. "According to statistics, we can pat ourselves on the back. Of the fish caught in the Ketchikan Salmon Derby in 2001, 54 percent, and in 2002, 76 percent landed, were enhanced by SSRAA. The biggest percentage was in 2003 where 86 percent were SSRAA produced fish and we've been staying roughly around 60 to 66 percent since that time. In 2005, 66 percent was our [SSRAA's] contribution to the derby."
Round further stated, "I want to point out that SSRAA releases fish for the economic impact it has on Ketchikan, but also built in the by-laws is a social benefit in sportsfishing and the fact that we create a standard of living in Ketchikan, so the impact is not just on commercial fishing."
Also important to note was a study done by the McDowell Group in 2000. Round explained, "We asked the McDowell Group for a separate report on SSRAA's impact to the economy and in 2000, SSRAA contributed 28 million dollars in economic output to the region from just SSRAA production alone."
By the end of Round's presentation, those in the audience had a new respect for the work of SSRAA and their hatcheries as well as a better understanding of the term enhancement when applied to fish as well as knowing the difference between ranch and farm fish.
Always remember, "Friends don't let friends eat farmed fish!"
On Wednesday, April 26th, there will be two invited guest speakers. Frank Smith will be speaking about the United Way followed by Representative Rob Samuels who will discuss the proposed Petroleum Production Tax. Blaine Ashcroft, Business Manager of the Chamber asked that members and their guests make every attempt to attend the luncheon early to allow time for both presentations and plan on running beyond the scheduled ending time.
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