Friday, July 26, 2013

Casual Day Trip for the Least Casual of Interns

Yesterday we awoke with all intentions to be productive in the office.  After checking the weir and moving 2 fish we headed in, where there was talk of what time ‘the girls’ should leave.  Needless to say we were very confused about this unrevealed trip, but waited for clarification.  Around 12:30 in the afternoon we hopped on a floatplane and flew out to Kitoi Hatchery! 

Kitoi is the second largest hatchery in North America, and currently undergoing renovations that will make it the largest.  Here, various salmon species are incubated, hatched, reared, released, then return several years later as adults to be harvested.  We were fortunate enough to be there during the egg-take for Chum salmon, which are beautifully striped with deep reddish purple during spawning.  The harvest will go on all summer long, with hundreds of millions of fish to process, and when the Chum are finished the Pink salmon will begin coming up the river. 

can you see the hundreds of fish crowded up the river!? This must be what they mean when they say there's so many 'you could walk across them'

These returning fish were released at Kitoi hatchery 1-3 years ago, depending on the species, and have largely been caught by commercial fishermen while making their way back to the river they came from.  The ones piling on top of each other in the trickle of a river below the fish ladder managed to get past the fisherman barrier and are now at their final destination: Kitoi hatchery to be harvested for eggs and milt that will make more salmon for the future.  They congregate towards a heavy flow of water, and at Kitoi, that would be the fish ladder.  This is how we encourage the salmon to swim up the wide, curving ladder, and into long raceway tanks to be held before being electrocuted and harvested.  It’s a real process, and an efficient one, that requires a team effort of each person skillfully and quickly doing their part.  I was fascinated watching the ease of the production, whereby the shocked, immobile (sometimes still seizing) fish come sliding down the table, are sorted by gender, and then harvested accordingly.  The males endure a much less intrusive method and are simply squeezed, but the females are sliced open by the belly so their eggs can be scooped out.  Once the desired goods are collected, the fish are slid down the pathway and funnel into a large tube that runs around the cliff side of the hatchery and lands on a barge that, at the end of the day, will take the bodies out to deeper water for disposal.

sorting the males and females after they've been shocked

left: squeezing the males; right: slicing the females
harvested Chum sliding down the chute

As for the eggs, this is only the beginning. The valuable components from both sexes of salmon funnel into large buckets, constantly rotated out, and, once full, are taken indoors to one of the rearing buildings where they are rinsed with fresh water to activate fertilization, bathed in iodine as a sterilizer, and set to soak for an hour.  The fertilized eggs will then be incubated indoors for several months before hatching, and growing in a immense vertical tank that facilitates a large increase in size over a short period.

mixing of the eggs and milt

incubating boxes

After watching the process for quite some time, we explored more of the grounds and spotted some bears!  One young furry creature was a bit skiddish and bounded up the rock wall when we ran over in excitement to observe.  He later came back to catch numerous salmon and feast on the Chum frenzy that were so easily catchable as they piled in the hundreds in only a few inches of water.  Our previous tour of the hatchery informed us that we were safe on the other side of the fish ladder whose ‘ropes’ were actually electric fences.

young bear enjoying the plentiful salmon

Considering we won’t be staying in Kodiak long enough to participate in the egg-take of the King salmon we’ve been collecting all summer, we were thrilled to see the climax of the season in action.  Add bear sightings to that and our Alaskan aquaculture experience is complete!  This unexpected day trip was a wonderful bonus to our internship, and one of the highlights of our summer.

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