Fish and Game’s options for Burnett hatchery’s chum salmon release. (Courtesy of Fish and Game)

 

The Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association is working to increase chum salmon production at its Burnett Inlet hatchery near Etolin Island. The hatchery program hopes to increase the facility’s capacity by 30 million chum salmon in the next two to three years.

 

The initiative is still in its early stages and release sites have not been decided. SSRAA Board President Chris Guggenbickler noted there are several sites on the drawing board and some are near Wrangell.

“The SSRAA board is currently working on and will be talking this spring at the regional planning team meeting in Sitka on April 5, looking at where we’re going to release those fish,” he explained. “Most likely some of them are going to be in the Wrangell area. We’re looking at Canoe Pass, the south end of Canoe Pass, possibly Earl West Cove as possible release sights for those fish.”

SSRAA’s other chums are caught by commercial seine, gillnet and troll fleets.

The Burnett site is already permitted by the Department of Fish and Game for the additional eggs, but a permit alteration request is required to add a release site. Fish and Game gave the hatchery association 10 possibilities. Once a site is chosen, the department’s branches will make recommendations to the commissioner, who will make the final decision.

Finding a release site for these fish can be difficult due to proximity of wild salmon systems or index creeks used to calculate how many salmon are returning to spawn, or escapement numbers. Fish and Game’s Regional Resource Development Biologist Flip Pryor explained Earl West Cove, the closest location to Wrangell, was a previous release site. But, it may come with some complications.  

“Earl West Cove really isn’t an ideal spot anymore because the Board of Fish adopted the escapement plan for Southeast Alaska, and there’s two index streams that are fairly close [in] proximity to Earl West Cove. It’s not a definite no. It’s just not ideal anymore.”

The two index sources, Oerns Creek, which is a tributary to Aaron’s Creek near Berg Bay and the Harding River south of Wrangell Island may be too close to Earl West. Pryor said as a general rule of thumb, release sites should be about 50 kilometers from index streams.

“You’re looking at these systems from an air plane and flying over and trying to figure how many fish are in there. If there’s a percentage of them that are hatchery fish, now you’re overestimating what your escapement is to that system,” he said. “Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not going to go into that. It complicates the issue.”

Canoe Pass, on the southwest side of Etolin Island, may be less of a problem. It sits about the same distance from the Harding River as Earl West, but is about 56 kilometers from Oerns Creek.

“So it pushes it a little further away, which is good. There’s going to be higher stray rates closer to the site than the further away you get,” Pryor said.

The Burnett hatchery currently produces 50 million chums. Half of those fish are released on the eastern side of the island in Anita Bay, and the remainder are released near the hatchery.

Guggenbickler explained it will take two to three years to build the Burnett facility’s capacity.

“It’s something that we’re ramping up to. It’ll be another four years after that before we have the bulk of our return,” Guggenbickler explained. “Generally, 10 million chum salmon eggs, if they survive at 3 percent, they’ll provide 300,000 chum salmon at 10 pounds. That’s 60 cents per pound, that’s kind of the math we’re using right now. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

Sites near Ketchikan, Metlakatla and Craig are also on the list.

Wrangell-based gillnetter Jared Gross said he would prefer Earl West Cove, but Canoe Pass also has his interest. Gross typically travels north to Juneau for part of the season and added that if either site was chosen, it would be another option to stay close to home. But, he noted he’ll wait to see the returns.

“If we see good returns coming back here, then it makes sense to stay here. If they’re bad and there’s more fish up north, where do you think you’re going to be? You’re going to be in Juneau,” Gross said.

About 6 million hatchery fish were harvested in Southeast in 2016. Chums made up about 90 percent of the catch.