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AFSC Historical Corner:  Early (Federal) Salmon Hatcheries in Alaska

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Species Research
Federal Hatcheries
  - Yes Bay
  - Afognak Lake
Fisheries Management
Environmental and Ecosystem Monitoring
Afognak hatchery
Federal salmon hatchery built in 1907 on Afognak Lake.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1919.

In the late 1800's some of the Alaska cannerymen recognized the need to artificially repopulate the salmon runs that were being threatened by the many canneries in operation. In additon, the 1889 federal Fisheries Act (amended in 1900) "required each person, company or corporation to establish a fish hatchery near their fishing operation and to produce 'four times' the number of mature salmon taken during the fishing season." (U.S. Forest Service)

As a result, several canneries in the Karluk area of southeastern Kodiak Island collaborated to build a hatchery on the Karluk River lagoon in 1891. The lack of good water, decent equipment and experience resulted in the hatching of only one-fifth of the 2.5 million eggs taken in. The next year the station closed due to operational disagreements among the parties involved.

Much credit is due to Captain John C. Callbreath (1826-1916), a local cannery manager and long-time Alaska resident who had realized that the abundant salmon supply would eventually diminish. He built a crude hatchery in 1892 on Kuiu Island, which unfortunately lost the eggs collected that year to an exceptionally high tide. Having also lost his nearby cannery to a fire only a few months earlier, Callbreath relocated to Etolin Island in Southeast Alaska and built a red salmon hatchery in 1893 on a stream at the head of McHenry Inlet – it was soon moved to a more suitable site on a nearby lake.

Dams were constructed across the stream to prevent spawning humpback salmon, dog salmon, and any other undesirable species from entering the lake. The red and coho salmon that reached the base of a dam through trap openings in the rack downstream were lifted over the dam with hand-held dip nets to the pools above from where they could continue on to the lake.

Callbreath conducted extensive experiments on artificial spawning involving fertilization methods with milt. His hatchery remained in operation nearly 20 years before it was forced to close when both Callbreath's funds and eyesight failed him.
Additional reading and photos:  Callbreath Hatchery, p. 302-308.  In Moser, J. F. 1902. Alaska Salmon Investigations in 1900 and 1901.  (.pdf, 1 MB)

Other low-scale cannery-owned and private hatcheries sprang up in Alaska until the mid-1890s when the first significant plant was built (Karluk Hatchery, see bullet below). Into the 1900s criticism grew concerning hatchery matters such as the high salmon mortality rates and out-dated ineffective propagation methods (i.e., the locations chosen for planting fry). In addition, to help offset the canning taxes, the U.S. Government began paying rebates based on the number of fry planted, without consideration to their condition or survival rate. Another concern was the ease for falsifying records, since hatchery inspections were infrequent.

Federal hatcheries

On 3 March 1905, a sundry civil bill was passed by Congress which appropriated $50,000 for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) to construct and operate salmon hatcheries in Alaska. Potential building locations were evaluated and narrowed to three: the lower Wood River in Bristol Bay, Afognak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, and Yes Bay in southeastern Alaska. Two sites were soon chosen for establishing the federal hatcheries; first at Yes Bay in 1905, then at Afognak Lake (Afognak Island, central Alaska) in 1907 (completed in 1908). While there had been several non-government hatcheries in Alaska over the previous 15 years, only the following three were still active in 1906 when the Yes Bay plant was operational:

  • Karluk – In May 1896, the Alaska Packers' Association (APA) began work on Alaska's first large hatchery near the outlet of Karluk River located on the southwestern part of Kodiak Island. Initially capable of holding several million eggs, the plant grew each year, reaching a capacity for about 40 million eggs by 1905. To hasten the incubation of eggs, a unique, but short-lived, experiment was tried in which a furnace and pump were used to raise the water temperature at the plant. Eventually, as more was known about fish culture, it became apparent that because of its location and fish culture methods, the Karluk hatchery was overall ineffective. It was closed in 1916.
  • Klawak – The North Pacific Trading and Packing Company built a hatchery in 1897 near the head of Klawak stream by Klawak Lake on Prince of Wales Island. The 50-foot long building contained 8 hatching troughs. That fall, less than 40% of the sockeye eggs taken actually hatched. The next year the hatchery was dismantled and rebuilt at a more desirable location three miles away on Threemile Creek. In 1916, the number of eggs taken (8.16 million) reached the hatchery's capacity. The station was closed the following year, primarily because a superintendent could not be retained.
  • Fortmann – The APA-owned Fortmann Hatchery was built in 1901 on Heckman Lake, about 25 miles north of Ketchikan. The station, with a capacity of 110 million eggs, was the largest and most expensive in the world. In January 1907, nearly all of the 6 million eggs collected were lost to excessively cold temperatures. An important part of the salmon-culture work at the station was in minimizing the risks to salmon and their eggs. In 1907, the Fortmann hatchery removed 40,000 predatory sculpins ("bullheads") using baited traps and dynamited nearby pools to eliminate trout prior to planting fry in nearby Naha stream. An experiment in 1908 attempted to provide additional food for salmon fry by propagating plankton within cow manure. During its record brood year in 1911, the hatchery released just over 100 million fry from the 107.5 million eggs taken. Because in insufficient funds, the successful Fortmann hatchery closed in 1927.
Fortmann hatchery
Fortmann hatchery built in 1901 on Heckman Lake.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1914.

The federal Yes Bay and Afognak hatcheries grew and by 1911 their combined total capacity was 144 million red salmon eggs, compared with 189 million for the five private stations in operation. Fish culture work at the two government hatcheries continued for over 20 years until their closures in 1933-34. Two years later, the last of the cannery-owned hatcheries also closed.

At this time the focus of controling Alaska's salmon supply was in the regulation of fishing rather than artificial propagation. With the exception of an experimental BOF hatchery at Little Port Walter, the interest in salmon enhancement ("aquaculture") projects wasn't renewed until 1951, at which time new hatcheries and research stations began to emerged.

The U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (1956-69) made significant research in fish culture – especially in the development of easily attainable nutritious and transportable fish food – at its Auke Bay Laboratory facility in Alaska, which opened in 1960. Since then, only state-run salmon hatcheries were in operation until the mid-1970s, when new legislation allowed non-profit privately owned hatcheries to open. With 1976 legislation, aquaculture associations representing local fishing and community groups were created as active participants in regional salmon enhancement programs – many of these associations operating hatcheries. More recently, controversy exists concerning the ecological and health effects of intensive salmon aquaculture.

Additional reading:

  • Roppel, P. 1982. Alaska's Salmon Hatcheries 1891-1959. U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, Portland, OR., 299 p.
  • Jones, L. E. 1915. Hatchery Work. In Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914. Wash. G.P.O., 155 p.  (.pdf, 17.45 MB).
  • Bower, W. T. 1912. Fish Culture in Alaska, p. 66-88. In B. W. Evermann, Alaska Fisheries and Fur Industries in 1911 (doc. 766). Wash. G.P.O. 100 p.  (.pdf, 1.22 MB).
  • Cobb, J. N. 1921. Fishing Grounds and History of the Fisheries, p. 247-253. In J. N. Cobb, Pacific Salmon Fisheries (doc. 902). Wash. G.P.O. 268 p. + figs.  (.pdf, 426 KB).
  • Fasett, H. C. 1902. The Karluk Hatchery, p. 331-349 + plate (part of J. F. Moser, Alaska Salmon Investigations in 1900). In Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. XXI, for 1901. Wash. G.P.O.  (.pdf, 1.88 MB).
  • Gard, R., and R. L. Bottorff. 2014. A History of Sockeye Salmon Research, Karluk River System, Alaska, 1880-2010. NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-F/SPO-125. 413 p.  (.pdf, 65 MB or by sections).

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