Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association sees returns double hatchery expectations in some areas

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Some areas in Alaska have entirely wild salmon runs. But there’s also 28 hatcheries around the state. Two of those facilities are based in Kodiak, including one near the mouth of Pillar Creek, just outside of town. 

It all starts with egg takes. Hatchery staff and volunteers take four wheelers or fly out to remote lakes to catch fish that are close to spawning. Some salmon like coho hold just over 1000 eggs a fish, but sockeye can have as many as 2700 eggs each. Eggs are then brought to the hatchery’s indoor facilities.

The eggs are sensitive to light so bins are usually stored in the dark. Staff use flashlights when in the room with them, August 28, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Tina Fairbanks is the executive director of the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, which operates the archipelago’s hatcheries. This summer marks 40 years for the organization. The other hatchery is in Kitoi Bay and was built by the federal government in the 1950s.

Fairbanks said hatchery eggs have a much higher survival rate than wild spawners. 

“At the hatchery level, if we see 20 percent mortality, we’re upset,” she said. “At Pillar Creek Hatchery, a lot of times they’ll have 90% survival from the time that they’re taking the eggs until the time that they are ponded as fry and start rearing here at the hatchery.”

She said at best, only about a fifth of wild eggs make it to that stage. 

Runways, or long water tanks that simulate the flow of a river, can hold thousands of fish each, August 28, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

James “Hawk” Turman is the Pillar Creek Hatchery Manager. He said while it’s normal for anadromous fish returns to vary, the facility’s main goal is to support fishers when runs are low. 

“It’s all about bringing that bottom end of the boom bust up,” he said. “When it’s booming, no one cares about what we do – there’s fish everywhere, this is kind of disregarded. But when there’s not enough fish, like for example, the Buskin (River) was closed down for reds.”

That means that in a big run year, hatcheries produce only a small percentage of returns. But hatchery fish could make up half of a fishery in a single year. 

The Pillar Creek facility currently has sockeye, coho, Chinook, and even rainbow trout. And there’s protocols to maximize their survival rate. For example, staff constantly disinfect before interacting with fish. 

“If something does happen, then it’s isolated to one small portion and it’s very easy because of our protocols to figure out where the contamination came from,” he said. “So we have foot baths all over the place, all the coolers on the ground, those are full of medical grade disinfectant.”

Staff feed fish with estimates of biomass and run calculations as if they’re feeding one massive fish instead of thousands of small fish. Turman said it makes the numbers easier to work with and fish get roughly equal amounts of food anyway, August 28, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

For most folks, these fish are nearly indistinguishable from fully wild ones. Salmon are marked by their otoliths –  that’s a small bone in their heads that shows their growth over a lifetime. 

Every hatchery gets assigned their own marks by a lab in Juneau. Most facilities mark otoliths by heating or cooling the water that runs over eggs, but Turman said Kodiak staff mark their fish a little differently. 

“We actually figured out how to do it without any additional utility,” he said. “So here we do what’s called ‘dry marking.’ It’s a little scary the first time you do it, you actually drain the water off of your eggs.”

Eggs can be dry for up to 24 hours and it leaves dark lines on the grown fish’s otolith. Once grown, fish are released in various creeks and lakes around the archipelago and mingle with their feral counterparts before swimming to the ocean. 

Fairbanks, with the regional aquaculture association, said while numbers won’t be finalized until winter, they’ve already doubled their forecasted return for this year in some areas. 

Tours of the hatchery are available by calling the KRAA office in advance or by visiting the Pillar Creek Hatchery in person and asking if staff have time, August 28, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

KRAA is honoring its 40th anniversary by partnering with fishing families to host the Salmon Life Celebration in Fort Abercrombie State Park on September 24. The event celebrates the end of the salmon season for the archipelago and will feature food and live music and is open to the public. 

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