Deer Mountain today (June/July 2015): The Ketchikan Tribal Hatchery Corporation (KTHC) quit operating Deer Mountain Hatchery in July of 2013 when the facility was turned back to the City of Ketchikan. In 2014 SSRAA negotiated with the City and eventually took over the site in November of that year. Several funding sources; a deferred maintenance grant from the state, a Chinook mitigation grant, and insurance funds for water damage caused by a broken pipe, were used to bring the hatchery up to date. Up to date includes: new modern fish rearing circulars, refinishing a large part of the building to include the residence for a hatchery manager, and ongoing design/construction of a tourism friendly peripheral area including fisheries interpretive structures and a tourism shop.
Chinook from Whitman Lake Hatchery were placed in existing circular tanks in the spring of 2015 and in May about 80,000 yearling chinook smolt were released directly from the site into Ketchikan Creek…this is SSRAA’s part of the agreement with the City of Ketchikan, to annually release approximately 100,000 chinook smolt in Ketchikan Creek. Another 1,500 chinook were retained and grown a little larger for release in the adjacent park for Kids Fishing Day. In early June, 100,000 juvenile chinook were moved to Deer Mountain from Whitman Lake Hatchery with another 400,000 coming from Whitman about 3 weeks later. These fish will spend the next year at Deer Mountain before being released, about 100,000 in Ketchikan Creek and the remaining 400,000 at a release site in Carroll Inlet or in the Neets Bay SHA.
Deer Mountain isn’t currently a hatchery in the strictest sense as eggs are not taken from returning broodstock and incubated at the site, this occurs at Whitman Lake Hatchery which is also on the Ketchikan road system. Regardless, in the near future Deer Mountain will officially become a hatchery through the state’s permitting process – though it may never serve as a hatchery in the strictest sense.
The History of Deer Mountain Hatchery…perhaps the second oldest hatchery site in Alaska still in operation (Information from Alaska Department of Fish and Game):
Deer Mountain is one of the oldest hatcheries in Alaska, near the site of the former Ketchikan Territorial Hatchery that operated from 1925 to 1931. The existing building, some of the structure anyway, was built in 1954 by the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce King Salmon Derby. At the time it was called Deermount Hatchery. The $16,000 mortgage for the building was paid off over a nine-year period with proceeds of the Ketchikan King Salmon Derby. At that time the city leased the facility to the state of Alaska. The hatchery was initially involved with rearing steelhead and rainbow trout along with Chinook and coho salmon. In 1971, the hatchery was closed by the state.
Several years later the legislature appropriated funds for operation of Deer Mountain by borough schools. The site was reopened at a local level to incubate pink salmon eggs. The school district and Ketchikan Pulp Co. agreed to run and maintain the hatchery. In 1977, the Ketchikan Borough and the Economic Development Authority renovated the facility and ADF&G’s FRED Division took over operations. In 1994, as the FRED Division of ADF&G was dissolved and Alaska divested itself of hatcheries producing fish for commercial fisheries and Ketchikan Tribal Hatchery Corporation (KTHC) took over hatchery operations. Under KTHC, salmon production was decreased and the facility partly functioned as a tourist attraction. Due to financial losses over multiple years, KTHC quit operating in July, 2013 and the facility was turned back to the City of Ketchikan. At that point in time Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (SSRAA) expressed interest in the facility and negotiated terms for operation of the site with the city. In 2014, SSRAA’s Whitman Lake Hatchery was permitted to begin releasing king salmon in Ketchikan Creek through the Deer Mountain site and to develop sufficient broodstock for the operations.
SSRAA’s intention is to return the facility to full production capacity with chinook salmon. The current goal is to release 100,000 chinook yearling smolt in Ketchikan Creek and another 400,000 yearling smolt in Carroll Inlet to support local troll fisheries. SSRAA historically operated a remote release site in Carroll Inlet, but abandoned that program in the 1990’s. In the intervening years trollers have learned how to harvest chinook in terminal areas, when fish are generally “off the bite”. With this change, the program again became feasible.
There was another issue involved in choosing Carroll Inlet as a release site. Behm Canal wild stocks of chinook have not always met escapement goals. This is not a frequent occurrence, but when it occurs, local corridor fisheries traversed by back-Behm fish traverse are curtailed to decrease the harvest of those fish. The Carroll Inlet site is not in this corridor while Neets Bay, the alternative release site for Deer Mountain fish, is in that corridor. On occasion the June fishery in and around the Neets Bay Special Harvest Area is constrained while the Carroll Inlet fishery should not come under the same restrictions.
While FRED Division ran the hatchery, the program at the site was diverse, and in some instances pointed toward research as much as to the production of fish. Steelhead were produced for release in Ketchikan Creek; summer coho were produced for release in Ward Lake and Ketchikan Creek, chinook salmon released in Ketchikan Creek and sometimes from net pens in Thomas Basin, and rainbow trout were grown for release in Harriet Hunt and Carlanna Lakes.
The most significant research at the site involved testing the rearing density of chinook related to their eventual survival to adult. The outcome of the experiments suggested guidelines that are still used by fish culturists in Alaska. In short, if you put too many fish in a rearing circular or raceway, it will reduce their survival to adult – in some instances you create more adults by rearing fewer juvenile fish. They also experimented with procedures that neutered chinook and rainbow trout. The thought was that if a chinook didn’t have the need to spawn they might grow even larger before returning to their natal waters…unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, this process never resulted in an adult chinook identified in harvest anywhere in Alaska. The trout were sterilized by a simple procedure, manipulating the temperature of the eggs at a specific time during incubation. It was thought necessary to sterilize the trout since they came from elsewhere in the state and being sterile they would not impact the genetic makeup of local stocks. Finally, they also experimented with zero-age chinook smolt. These are juvenile fish that are only reared from hatch until August of the same year when they are released in salt water. Most chinook in Alaska are reared for a full year and released the year after they hatch from eggs. If zero’s can be successfully released, and create nearly as many adults as yearling smolt, then a small hatchery like Deer Mountain can both produce more adults and save money in the process. Deer Mountain was not the only site where zero-age smolt were produced in Alaska. Unfortunately, like many other things that have been tried, none of the zero-age smolt released from programs at Deer Mountain were ever found in any numbers in SE Alaska harvest.
During the period the hatchery was operated by KTHC the fish production program was diminished. Some summer coho and chinook were produced across the entire period and some fish were provided for Kids Fishing Day, but releases were generally small with SSRAA sometimes assisting with summer coho broodstock.
Why didn’t SSRAA assume the operation of Deer Mountain Hatchery when the state program ended in 1994. SSRAA is a regional aquaculture association. Regional aquaculture associations, by design, have first right of refusal for any salmon enhancement facility that is abandoned by its current operator. As such, when FRED Division divested itself of Deer Mountain Hatchery SSRAA was asked if they wanted to operate the facility. SSRAA said “no”. Why? Deer Mountain does not fit the current sustainable model for a user-pays hatchery site in Alaska. The model must generally have the potential to harvest enough fish returning to that site/program, so that the harvest of those fish by the operator will pay for the costs of the program. There is little or no cost recovery potential at Deer Mountain Hatchery. The site can only be operated with funding from elsewhere. When KTHC took over they anticipated funding would come from tourism and the site was developed as an eagle sanctuary as well as a hatchery with a direct tourism connection by bridge to the Heritage Center across Ketchikan Creek. Ultimately the raptor center and hatchery did not attract enough tourism revenue to warrant KTHC’s continuing the program.
In the meantime, from 1994 to 2013, SSRAA matured as an organization, paying off the substantial debt involved with construction of its production scale hatcheries at Whitman Lake and Neets Bay. As the program matured, it was possible to view Deer Mountain as a positive extension of Whitman Lake Hatchery. The cost of operation was moderated by an economy of scale as it was considered a part of the Whitman program. And, there is one large plus at Deer Mountain, the water. The water flowing through Deer Mountain Hatchery is the best quality (temperature profile) water available to SSRAA for the production of chinook salmon smolts. We also feel that the program at Deer Mountain provides a vehicle we can use to explain salmon enhancement to the many tourists who visit the hatchery each summer. With the passing of time, what was once rejected as a significant liability could now prove an asset.
What does the future hold…Commercial trollers and local sport fishers will harvest from the 10,000 to 12,000 fish that return to Carroll Inlet. SSRAA will deploy a seiner of gill netter to clean up unharvested fish at the release site.
It isn’t unreasonable to think that 3,000 or 4,000 chinook will annually return from the fish released in Ketchikan Creek, and easily half of those will escape local marine commercial and sport anglers to return to the creek itself. This puts 1,500 to 2,000, 20 to 30 pound, chinook in Ketchikan Creek every June and July. Kids will fish for these fish from the bridge at Thomas Basin and there will be dip net fisheries in the upper reaches of the creek…and thousands of visitors will annually get to see Alaska’s State fish swimming beneath them as they walk along Creek Street.
This is the beginning of a more robust Chinook program for SSRAA and coincides with other production changes that require freeing up space at Whitman Lake Hatchery and providing broodstock security for these Chickamin River stock Chinook. The recently acquired space at Deer Mountain allows these changes. This year Deer Mountain Hatchery will be used as a rearing site, SSRAA will pond 500,000 Chinook fry. Starting in the spring of 2016 and each year thereafter approximately 100,000 Chinook smolt will be released within Ketchikan Creek. The remainder will be released at one of our remote release sites. SSRAA received permitting approval for a former SSRAA Chinook release site in Carroll Inlet the SSRAA Boards current preferred release site for this facilities remaining production.
SSRAA anticipates using the hatchery as an educational outreach center that will allow visitors. This is a great opportunity for SSRAA to educate the public about SSRAA programs and the important work the regions hatchery community does for the regional economy. However, much work needs to be completed to be ready for that aspect of the program. Extensive renovation is necessary to accommodate visitors. The facility will not be readily accessible to the public until the 2017 summer season.
SSRAA is involved as one of the sponsors of the annual City Park Spring Kids Fishing Derby again this year, providing fish from Deer Mountain to stock City Park ponds for that June event.
Chinook Pre-Smolts entering rearing pond from transport tanker. Photo by Jesse Knock