Solomon’s Salmon

We left Kennecott on Saturday morning, August 4, and returned to the motorhome in Glennallen, hooked up the Jeep, and headed south on the Richardson Highway to Valdez (pronounced “Valdeez”). The Richardson Highway is said to be Alaska’s first road, originally built by the Army to facilitate the migration of prospectors into the interior at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, it goes all the way to Fairbanks.

The southern part of the Richardson Highway is reputedly quite beautiful. Unfortunately, we traveled on a day of continual rain and increasingly dense fog, unable to see even the Worthington Glacier. Just before Thompson Pass (elev. 2,678 feet) we pulled over to unhook the Jeep in anticipation of a long descent once we crested the pass. I continued on in the RV with Dale following in the Jeep. The fog was so thick at the pass we couldn’t see more than 20 feet ahead. Most drivers pulled over, but we continued along on the emptied road at a 10 mph crawl. The descent turned out to not be so bad once the fog dissipated and, in retrospect, we could have easily made the drive down with the Jeep in tow.

We took the Jeep back up to Thompson Pass and Worthington Glacier several days later to see what we had missed, even though it was still rainy and somewhat foggy. Here’s what’s worth pulling over for (clockwise from top left): Worthington Glacier, Bridal Veil Falls, Keystone Canyon and Horsetail Falls.

We were in Valdez for four days with plans to hike and kayak, but a low pressure system settled in and it rained the entire time with fog so thick we couldn’t even see the mountains that encircle the harbor. But we did get out for two excursions: a cruise to Meares Glacier; and a drive down Dayville Road, three miles north of Valdez. Our main purpose for driving out Dayville Road was to look for bears. Now that the salmon are spawning, we hoped to – and did – see bear feeding in the streams just off the road. Here’s one of them:

But even more interesting was the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, about a mile from the Valdez Marine Terminal, the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the end of Dayville Road.

The economy of Alaska, like that of Canada’s British Columbia and Yukon, is based on resource extraction: fish and crab, minerals and ore, oil and timber, and in years past, fur and hides. I suspect that if you asked an Alaskan, the resource considered to be most valuable would be salmon.

So it’s no wonder that when the bitter cold winters of 1971-1973 nearly killed off the natural runs of salmon in Prince William Sound, the State of Alaska took action – first, by requiring the closure of commercial and sport fishing to allow the fish population to recover. Then by legislatively authorizing the establishment of private, non-profit fish hatcheries (regulated by the State’s Fish & Game Department), the purpose of which was to “supplement wild stock production for public benefit.”

The citizens of Valdez responded to the new law and formed the non-profit Valdez Fisheries Development Association to build a salmon hatchery at nearby Solomon Gulch for the benefit of commercial and sport fishermen. By 1981, the hatchery had been constructed and was in operation. When we pulled in to the Solomon Gulch Hatchery visitor’s parking lot, the waters in front of the fishery were roiling with salmon.

There were so many fishing trying to get upstream, they seemed to be climbing over one another!

These fish are Pink salmon, also known as “Humpies.” They are the smallest of the five species of wild salmon found in Alaska, but also the most abundant, making up nearly 70% of all salmon in the Northern Pacific. They grow to an average weight of 3-5 lbs. Pinks are “2-year fish,” that is, they have a 2-year life cycle.

The fish in these photos were all artificially spawned, incubated for 3 months, and hatched here at Solomon Gulch. Their first year of life is spent at the Hatchery in offshore net pens, then they are released to mature in the sea for a second year before – in the mysterious way of salmon – they naturally return to the place of their birth to spawn and die.

There’s another species of salmon bred and incubated here at the hatchery: Coho, also known as “Silvers.” They typically arrive at the inlet in mid-September – about a month from now – and average 8 lbs. at maturity, although they can grow to be as much as 20 lbs. Coho are 3-year fish, requiring an additional year in freshwater in a long term rearing building here at the Hatchery.

The water was so shallow at the edge of the inlet that I could get close enough to touch the salmon had I wanted to.

When the fish arrive at Solomon Gulch, they are channeled by a fish weir into the Hatchery so the eggs can be removed from the females and the milt milked from the males. The fish weir is only maintained across the mouth of the creek during the summer spawning season. The creek upstream of here is too limited to accommodate the numbers required to maintain the fishery.

The Hatchery’s website has a good description of what takes place here:

Solomon Gulch Hatchery has a permitted green egg capacity to incubate 250 million pink salmon and 2 million coho salmon each year. These egg capacities are strictly controlled by the State of Alaska. With this capacity, [the Hatchery] achieves annual releases [into the Gulf of Alaska] of approximately 230 million pink salmon fry, and 1.8 million coho salmon smolt.

Egg take or spawning happens in late summer. Hatchery staff may spawn as many as 16,000 adult brood stock each day [for about 20 days]. These fish return to the hatchery spawning building by entering the facility using a fish ladder, which carry the fish from salt water to raceways on shore. Over the winter, the hatchery staff tends to the eggs as they hatch into alevin and settle into simulated gravel to subsist from their yolk sacs. In early spring, the fry emerge and are ready to go to sea. [The Hatchery] pumps the fry to net pens off shore where they are fed using commercial salmon feeds until they reach a target weight of at least 0.5 grams. From there, the smolts are released to complete their life cycle in the open sea. This process is known as ocean ranching. The adult [Pink salmon], which average about 3.5 pounds each, return the following summer, and the process starts all over again.

Average adult returns to the hatchery are approximately 13 million adult pink, and 160,000 coho salmon. After harvesting a small percentage of the return for cost recovery and brood stock, the remainder is harvested primarily by the commercial purse seine fishermen.

By my calculation, that’s a 95% attrition rate (250 million Pinks spawned, 230 million fry released to the wild, 13 million mature fish return: 13M / 250M = 5% return rate; the calculations for Coho are similar). Still, the absolute number of salmon being added to the population – 13 million Pinks per year and 160,000 Coho – is phenomenal.

Here’s a look at the point at which the weir directs the fish up the 29-step fish ladder:

Behind the raceway is the incubation building where the fertilized eggs are kept for 3 months until they hatch, after which the Coho fry are moved to the long term rearing building which is just visible to the left of the photo, below:

The Pink fry are immediately moved to the net pens after they hatch:

When we first took in the scene of so many fish thrashing about in the channel, trying to make their way up the blocked stream, I was very dismayed. There were numerous carcasses littering the shoreline of salmon that had simply worn themselves out in futility and died. But then I thought of the scene up the road, identical in result, if not in number. There – as here – the end result is the same: some fish spawn, then die; others die without ever reproducing. Yet, they all die at the end of the process. The Hatchery makes sure that as many fish as possible reproduce, albeit by artificial insemination.

Others, apparently, don’t see it that way. In recent years, several environmental groups have challenged the Hatchery’s permit, asserting that the Hatchery Pinks pose a risk to wild fish stocks in the Sound by competing for food. To me, this is a distinction without a difference, based on what I view to be the misguided belief that anything touched by the hand of man is unnatural. So far, the State of Alaska has sided with the Hatchery, finding the environmentalists’ fears to be ungrounded in fact.

Our drive up Dayville Road was unexpectedly interesting.

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