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Inside the operation that propped up Kodiak fishermen

October 6, 2018
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In a Sept. 13, 2018 photo, returning pink salmon swarm in a catchment area at the Kitoi Bay Hatchery on Afognak Island in Kodiak, Alaska. Kodiak's hatcheries, as well as those across the state, were originally set up to give fishermen a safety net during years in which wild stocks are low. Alaska's Private Non-Profit Hatchery Program, however, is currently at the center of a political battle that could see restrictions placed on the number of hatchery-reared fish that are released each year. (Alistair Gardiner/Kodiak Daily Mirror via AP)

KODIAK, Alaska (AP) — “It’s: egg-take, eat, sleep, repeat,” said Mike Wachter.

It was mid-September and the crew at Kitoi Bay Hatchery on Afognak Island was entering its final few weeks of the pink salmon egg-take. Wachter is the manager of the hatchery and was giving the Kodiak Daily Mirror a tour of the area. Walking among the buildings at the hatchery campus at around 10:00 a.m., hundreds of seagulls provided a deafening chorus. Bears wandered out of the woods down to the beach, plucked humpies from the water, and retreated.

As he looked across the pool of salmon swarming near Kitoi Creek, Wachter said that, after years of working at the hatchery, the salmon had invaded his dreams.

“I dream about them often,” he said. “Last night, I got in the shower and closed my eyes, and all I could see were coho.”

It was low tide and most of the staff were sleeping, having finished an egg-take shift sometime before 7:00 a.m. The next shift would begin just before high tide, at 2:45 p.m.

“We’ve done 200,000 fish already - that’s male and female. We’ve got about 135 million eggs right now,” said Wachter.

Kodiak’s hatcheries, as well as those across the state, were originally set up to give fishermen a safety net during years in which wild stocks are low. Alaska’s Private Non-Profit Hatchery Program, however, is currently at the center of a political battle that could see restrictions placed on the number of hatchery-reared fish that are released each year.

KODIAK’S HATCHERY

Kitoi Bay Hatchery is located on the west side of Izhut Bay roughly 30 miles north of Kodiak. It was originally built in 1954 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a sockeye salmon research facility and, following the 1964 earthquake, was rebuilt by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. By 1976, hatchery production priorities had switched to pink salmon fisheries enhancement. Bunkhouses and a number of other buildings were erected in the 1980s. The site is state-owned and is operated by the non-profit Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association.

KBH now houses eight permanent staff, and as many as 15 seasonal staff during egg-take periods. It is the third biggest hatchery production site in Alaska.

According to KRAA’s website, the goal of the facility is to “provide enhanced common property salmon fishing opportunities for Kodiak Management Area fishermen by increasing returns of pink, chum, coho, and sockeye salmon through broodstock development, egg takes, incubation, hatching, rearing, and releasing juvenile salmon, primarily to the Kitoi Bay area.” Secondary user groups of hatchery-reared salmon include subsistence and recreational fishermen.

KBH is currently permitted to take 215 million pink salmon eggs, 36 million chum eggs, 2.3 million coho eggs, and 850,000 sockeye eggs, for raising and releasing.

KRAA also operates a hatchery near Pillar Creek, which was constructed in 1990. Pillar Creek Hatchery was designed as a central incubation facility and primarily operates to rehabilitate weak sockeye salmon stocks, which are available to all user groups. It is permitted for 20 million sockeye eggs. The hatchery also produces coho salmon smolt for road-system stocking (it is permitted for 500,000 eggs).

In the areas surrounding Kitoi Bay Hatchery, returning fish are harvested by commercial fishermen. Commercial fishing vessels can drop their nets right up to a marker in Kitoi Bay. Trent Dodson is in charge of KRAA’s production and operations. On the morning that KDM flew in to visit, he stood gesturing to a float line across the innermost section of the bay, pointing out where the fish enter a catchment zone, and where commercial fishing is allowed. KRAA also catches fish near the hatchery, to recover the costs of operation.

“We didn’t do cost recovery this year, but when we do cost recovery, our boats can fish inside here. This is a special harvest area,” said Dodson.

2018 has provided a perfect example of how the hatchery program helps commercial fishermen, locally. The vast majority (some 3.2 million) of the pink salmon caught this season, were harvested in the Duck, Izhut and Kitoi Bays.

INCUBATION AND REARING

Before fishing comes into the picture, salmon eggs, fry and smolt are incubated, raised and reared by KRAA staff on site and in nearby lakes. Different species require different rearing methods and treatment.

When KDM visited Kitoi Bay Hatchery in September, Wachter took a reporter into a building that is used exclusively for sockeye. There were seven, numbered incubator tanks filled with roughly 850,000 sockeye eggs (not all of which will survive). These will be raised by KRAA over the next year and a quarter. In the spring the eggs will hatch and go into starter troughs.

In an adjacent room were seven corresponding raceways filled with sockeye smolt, which had grown from eggs picked almost exactly 12 months ago. It is a meticulous operation - every piece of equipment is cleaned and disinfected between each stage.

“Sockeye is our most biosecure species. We don’t want them to get any kind of viruses or anything like that, so they have their own separate building,” said Dodson. “We have seven incubators, seven starter troughs and seven raceways, so none of those fish will ever get mixed.”

This helps staff to monitor the fish and prevents the spread of disease between each of the seven cohorts. After 15 months, once the juveniles are ready to be reared, they are moved from raceways to net-pens in Little Kitoi Lake.

Rearing different species of salmon in the same facility can present dilemmas, for which KRAA staff have found solutions.

“As you know, with salmon in general, whatever water they’re reared in is where they’ll return to as adults,” said Wachter. “Sockeye and chum have similar run timing here. All our chum go up the creek (to Big Kitoi Lake), but we don’t want sockeye to go up the creek. So they’re both reared on the same freshwater, until the very last month, when we move them over to Little Kitoi.”

After one month in Little Kitoi, the fish are released into the sea. The sockeye will then return to Little Kitoi, which means hatchery staff don’t get both species returning to the same creek at the same time.

According to Wachter, outside of the egg-take, staff are kept busy during the summer with feeding. While there are a couple of automated feed systems at Kitoi, most of the feeding is done by hand, which is labor-intensive. In the summer, fish are fed seven times a day, seven days a week (in winter, this drops to once a fort night).

“We have, probably, seven people feeding every day,” said Wachter, “tossing feed by scoop, one at a time.”

“Al (Seale, manager of Pillar Creek Hatchery) calls them ‘goons with spoons’,” said Dodson, prompting laughter. “That’s an Al-ism.”

Feed is the second biggest expense in the hatchery’s budget - third on the list is fuel, but the number one cost is salaries.

In watching the egg-take, it’s clear why.

THE EGG-TAKE

In order of species, the egg take typically goes chum, pink, sockeye, then coho.

“Chums are earliest, they do those in July. Then we won’t get coho until November,” said Dodson.

When KDM was at Kitoi Bay in September, staff were taking pink salmon eggs.

It works like this: fish swim up the creek and into a ladder. A staffer scoops up a bunch of them using a mechanical trough. The fish are then shocked with electricity, for about 30 seconds.

“You don’t want to shock them too much,” said Dodson, “because they’ll expel the eggs.”

The fish then slide down a shoot onto a conveyor belt, which lifts them up into a building where staff are lined up to conduct the egg take. It begins with two people sorting the female fish from the male fish. The females are sent along the side of a large metallic platform, which has three people lined up on each side who split the fish open to get the eggs. All the eggs end up in a trough that leads to a bucket.

“There’s a little knife that you stick right in the mid of the fish, you come up around its pelvic fin, you cut it open and all the eggs fall out,” said Wachter.

The males are sent down the middle to one person at the end, whose job is to “milk” the fish. Semen is squeezed out of the fish and then drips down onto the river of eggs. The egg/milk combination the slides into a bucket.

The buckets are filled with roughly 45,000 eggs, before a cup of water is added, which activates fertilization. The buckets are then whisked, two-by-two, straight to an incubation building, where the eggs are rinsed and placed straight into an incubator. The main incubation building has stacks of hundreds of incubation tanks and is illuminated only by red lights, to protect the vulnerable eggs from UV light.

Watching this in practice, it looks almost like a miniature cannery operation. Prior to a shift, those taking eggs wrap their fingers and wrists in protective tape, like boxers preparing to fight. The whole crew is then given a briefing/pep-talk, during which the goals for the shift are broken down.

“Good work so far everybody, I know it’s been a drag. I do think this is the most back-to-back shifts that have ever been done here,” said Wachter. “And this is the last one. You’ll get tomorrow morning off.”

During the shift, fish pile into the building by the dozen and staff scurry to work as fast as they can. It takes the eggs a matter of minutes to get from fish to incubator. According to Wachter, shifts tend to last four-five hours, with a 15 minute break at high-tide. On very high-tides, the egg-take increases.

“Our record is 20 million eggs. That was a five and a half hour shift,” said Wachter. “Last night they got eight million.”

The spent fish then flow into a large pipe, which leaves the building, wraps around the dock and spits the carcasses out into a tender vessel. That particular day, it was Ocean Beauty Seafood’s The Guardian Angel.

James Turner, an Ocean Beauty Seafood plant manager said that the processor has a range of customers for these fish, which use the carcasses for different products.

“It can be pet-food, it can be fishmeal. It can be a number of different things instead of just waste,” said Turner.

That the fish are actually put to use is a point that Turner emphasized.

“There’s an end-user, instead of them just being disposed of, like they used to do,” he said.

Tina Fairbanks, KRAA’s executive director said that the hatchery operations are an important economic engine for the community.

“I had a board member in the past equate it to printing money,” she said. “When you think about it, because we do cost-recovery operations and we’re a non-profit, we produce all these fish . at little to no cost.”

“It’s a pretty phenomenal success story,” she added.

While its economic support of local fishermen is notable, Kitoi Bay Hatchery is also on the forefront of hatchery innovation.

Wachter explained that, to fight saprolegnia (a naturally occurring fungus that can kill salmon eggs) staff saturate the eggs in saltwater for an hour, before returning them to fresh water to incubate. The hatchery is now experimenting with using salt-water exposure to mark its pink salmon.

“We’re pioneering it,” said Wachter. “We’re going to pump salt-water to all of our pink salmon - so, 215 million eggs - and, instead of doing it for one hour, we’re going to do between six to twelve hours of straight salt-water.”

This, Wachter said, stresses the fish and causes a visible ring to form around a bone called the otolith.

“Then we’ll go back to fresh water for 18 hours, then we’ll do six hours of saltwater again,” said Wachter. “By changing the number of hours you do, you can make these distinct patterns that are identifiable to your hatchery.”

Dodson said they’re starting by marking 10 percent of the humpies, to fully test the procedure but the practice may expand. Rates of survival in fish subject to initial tests appeared unaffected.

The hatchery already marks its other species with different methods. Chums are thermally-marked (by changing the temperature of water); sockeye and coho are dry-marked (by temporarily removing the eggs from the water).

“Some people have to check their otoliths, so they know the fish aren’t straying into certain areas,” said Dodson. “We are checking otoliths for different release strategies.”

For example, the hatchery makes different marks on two batches of chum salmon and releases the two groups a couple of weeks apart. When the chum return they check the otoliths to see which of the two groups survived better.

Over the next few years, Dodson said, the hatchery does plan to conduct a study to check whether its pink salmon are appearing in other areas. This is partially because of ongoing political battles surrounding hatcheries and their effect on wild stocks.

A POLITICAL BATTLE

During the public comments section of a September 20 regular meeting of the Kodiak Island Borough assembly, Tina Fairbanks made an urgent request to the assembly.

“I’m here today to bring your attention to a campaign to undermine support for Alaska’s hatchery enhancement program for salmon,” she said.

She went on to explain that, beginning in February of this year, several advocacy groups began to speak out against hatcheries at Alaska Board of Fisheries meetings, primarily against pink and chum salmon enhancement.

The argument is, if hatchery reared fish spawn with wild fish, they could pass on genes that might reduce the chance of survival for future generations of wild stocks, which won’t get raised in the controlled environment of a hatchery. There is also a concern over increased competition for food sources.

Among those groups leading the charge is the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

“Given the sheer magnitude of hatchery pink salmon releases in the Gulf of Alaska, KRSA has concerns about the potential negative impacts on wild salmon,” said Ricky Gease, KRSA Executive Director, via press release.

“Further expansion of industrial hatchery pink salmon production in Prince William Sound at this time may be increasing the risk to sockeye and chinook salmon stocks in Southcentral Alaska,” Gease continued. “Given the disastrous returns of these wild salmon throughout the Gulf of Alaska in 2018, a precautionary approach that implements a temporary halt to additional hatchery pink salmon production is warranted.”

There are studies on either side of this argument.

“It’s like one of those things where you can ‘pick your science’,” said James Jackson, an ADF&G Kodiak area management biologist, during a recent Kodiak Fisheries Workgroup meeting.

KRSA has requested that the Board of Fish halt the incubation and release of an additional egg-take of 20 million for a pink salmon hatchery in Prince William Sound, an agenda change request that the board will consider at its upcoming October work session.

While Kodiak’s hatcheries have remained largely out of the crosshairs of these protests, a second agenda request change that the board will consider next month would affect hatcheries across the state. That request is for the board to cap statewide egg-take capacity at 75% of the level permitted in the year 2000.

Fairbanks said that, while there isn’t scientific consensus regarding the complaints, these requests “drew negative attention to hatchery programs.” As a result, Fairbanks requested that the borough send a resolution or letter of support for the hatchery program.

She explained to the borough that the hatchery program was initiated over four decades ago in response to periods of low abundance and was developed with “sound science” along with ADF&G.

“The salmon enhancement program provides opportunity where there would otherwise be little none, and helps provide a buffer in years when naturally spawning populations prove weak, such as this year,” she said. “This year alone KRAA has put over $6.5 million in estimated ex-vessel value into the commercial fisheries of Kodiak. At the same time, we have programs that benefit sport-fishing, subsistence and personal use fisheries, here in Kodiak and amongst the borough’s villages.”

Fairbanks later clarified that the monetary figure was a preliminary estimated, but insisted that the impact of this goes “beyond Kodiak.” Permit holders across the state rely on hatchery-reared fish during slow seasons, she said.

A week later, at a meeting of the Kodiak Fisheries Workgroup (which is made up of members of both the Kodiak City Council and the borough assembly), Trent Dodson appealed to the group to communicate its support of hatcheries to the BoF.

“Alaska has probably the strictest hatchery program in the world,” said Dodson. “We have a lot of precautionary principles in place that allow for us to operate safely.”

At that same meeting, James Jackson, an ADF&G Kodiak area management biologist, gave the workgroup a salmon season overview, in which he mentioned the hatchery contribution to this year’s harvest.

“The hatchery - I wouldn’t say it did well - but it saved a lot of fishermen’s bottom line this year,” said Jackson.

City mayor Pat Branson responded that the city would write up a letter of support, which will be sent to the BoF.

If the board accepts either of the two agenda request changes regarding hatchery productions, the issue will be taken up at its next meeting in March.

Public comments to the Board of Fish are due October 3.

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Information from: Kodiak (Alaska) Daily Mirror, http://www.kodiakdailymirror.com

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