The unusually dry weather and high temperatures hitting Kodiak could mean danger for spawning salmon this fishing season, according to scientists and fisheries specialists.
“We really need rain. Right where the lake and the creek meet, it’s about (ankle) deep,” said James “Hawk” Turman, assistant manager for the Pillar Creek Hatchery, during Friday’s sockeye salmon egg-take at Afognak Lake.
The hatchery team collected fish eggs and fertilized them externally with fish semen — called milt — before transporting the eggs to the hatchery to be incubated and raised until next spring.
The fish will be released into various lakes including Crescent Lake, Hidden Lake, Big Waterfall Lake and Little Waterfall Lake, Pillar Creek Hatchery Manager Al Seale said.
Despite hatchery efforts, without rain to replenish the lakes, creeks and rivers, the water levels will be too low and the water temperature too warm for salmon to spawn.
Additionally, warm water stresses the fish, causing them to be more susceptible to diseases, according to Trent Dodson, Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association’s operations and production manager.
“With the low water levels and less oxygen-rich water, it could mean large die-offs,” Seale said.
While the lack of rain and high temperatures concern fisheries specialists and KRAA employees, Friday’s egg-take crew focused on collecting and fertilizing the eggs.
To start the process, two wader-clad employees stood calf-deep in a fish pen made from plastic piping and 10-foot-deep netting, sifting through a brood of female fish that had been caught during the days leading up to the egg-take in Afognak Lake.
They would pick up each fish and carefully feel the undersides for “ripe” eggs ready to be fertilized. Another crewmember, who was standing in an adjacent pen, sifted for male fish. For every three “ripe” female fish ready to spawn, two male fish were used to fertilize the eggs.
The underside of a “ripe” fish feels like “beads in a plastic bag with water,” said seasonal fish technician Hannah Belisle.
Once the female and male sockeye were killed, two volunteers working as runners would dip them into a vat of iodine solution to disinfect them, and hand them to the rest of the fertilization team set up under a tarp overlooking the lake.
The rest of the process worked like a production line. The “spawner” would use a blade to slice open the female fish’s underside, emptying the translucent orange salmon eggs into a plastic bowl.
The good fish eggs, would slide seamlessly into the bowl, as if on an oiled slide, and would be passed to the “bucker” who would take the males and squirt milt into each bowl of fish eggs. Sometimes a fish would have bad or non-ripe eggs, which would have to be discarded.
Another volunteer working as the activator would mix water into the bowl of milt and eggs, fertilizing them for 30 seconds before the sperm became inactive.
Once the eggs were fertilized, they would be rinsed with a brown iodine solution to rid them of dirt and any possible viruses.
Then, the bowls of eggs were filled with iodine solution one last time, and placed on shelves for 50 minutes to water-harden, causing the fragile eggs to become firm and slick — and easier to transport.
At the end of the process, the eggs were placed into bags of water in coolers and transported to the hatchery.
By the end of Friday’s egg-take, eggs from only 65 fish were collected. The KRAA’s goal was between 180 and 200 fish, Turman said.
Although there are various reasons why many of the sockeye were not ready to spawn by the time of the egg-take, the main issue was the lake’s temperature, Dodson said.
“Fish decrease when there is hot weather. (The fish) don’t ripen and are more susceptible to stress and disease,” Dodson said. “The longer they are not ripening the longer they are stressing and dying.
“The salmon’s immune system basically shuts down,” Turman said.
Afognak Lake’s temperature measured about 19 degrees Celsius this year, 7 degrees warmer than four years ago, Seale said.
To lessen the chances of mortality, the crew put fewer fish than normal into each pen — about 200 — so the fish would not compete as much for oxygen.
“That’s why we are holding them at looser densities,” Dodson said.
After the fertilization process, the eggs were transported to the hatchery where they will be incubated and raised until the fish have grown enough to be released.
The fish released by the hatchery are a large portion of Kodiak’s commercial fishery. Last year more than 3.6 million of the KRAA-produced salmon were harvested in the common property commercial fishery, contributing a value of approximately $7.33 million — 25 percent of the total Kodiak commercial harvest value, according to the KRAA annual report.
“It’s really just giving fishermen fish to catch where we release them,” Belisle said.
Whether the fish are used for sport, commercial, and subsistence fishing, or eaten by wildlife, “we want every fish we produce to get caught,” Turman said.
After three hours, the crew had collected all the ripe eggs available from the fish that were ready to spawn, and began to load the eggs into coolers to transport them via floatplane to the hatchery.
Because of the lower-than-expected numbers of spawning fish, the team will have to do another egg-take in a few days to reach their goal of 840,000 eggs.
Once the goal is met, the remaining fish will be released back into the lake.
The egg collection process is just one step in KRAA’s goal to help develop Kodiak salmon fisheries through research and enhancement techniques.
“We create opportunities where opportunities didn’t exist,” Dodson said. “We try to alleviate pressure on wild systems.”