Project Locator: Neck Lake is on the eastern coast of Prince of Wales Island draining into Whale Pass. The island is characterized by steep forested mountains where 60 to 200 inches of rain fall each year. You can drive to Whale Pass from the Craig/Klawock area on Prince of Wales or travel by boat or float plane from off island communities.
Snow Pass Coho: Snow Pass Coho are summer coho that currently return to both Burnett Inlet Hatchery and Neck Lake. What is a summer coho? A summer coho is a true coho that behaves like a sockeye. There are several small stocks of these fish in southeast Alaska. They return to lake systems in early summer and ripen for spawning for several months in the deep cool waters of the lake. They enter tributaries of the lake and spawn at the same time the more common fall coho enter streams to spawn. The Snow Pass fish originally came from Reflection Lake in Behm Canal and are now reared at Burnett Inlet Hatchery and in Neck Lake. These fish are generally the first coho to enter the market each summer.
Egg Collection: About 2 million eggs are collected and fertilized each year at Burnett Inlet Hatchery from adult fish returning to that site. After the fry hatch about 1.6 million are moved by plane to net pens in Neck Lake while 200,000 are retained at Burnett Inlet as broodstock for the coming generation. The fish retained at Burnett Inlet are reared at the hatchery for a year and then released as yearling smolt weighing between 25 and 30 grams.
Neck Lake Pre-smolt Project: All the fry moved to Neck Lake are reared in net pens through the summer and well into the fall of the year. The fish are taken off feed sometime in mid-November, at this point the water in Neck Lake is very cold and the fish enter a dormant state somewhat similar to hibernation with mammals. As the water warms in the spring the fish in the pens are once again fed regularly for a short period prior to release. As the fish change to ready themselves for migration in saltwater, a change we call smolting, we release the fish from the pens. At this point the coho leave the lake over the small barrier falls at the outlet of Neck Lake and move to saltwater in Whale Pass and then Clarence Straits. From there they move quickly through the SE Alaska archipelago and to the open ocean where they remain for 14 months. After 14 months at sea, those fish that have survived will return to the systems they left as smolt, some going to Burnett Inlet while the majority of the fish return to the small stream below Neck Lake.
The Neck Lake Facility: Water from Neck Lake flows through a pipeline and into a single large raceway below the barrier falls. The falls prevent adult coho from entering the lake. The fish are attracted into a fish pass at the base of the falls and climb to the raceway where they are held.
Returning Adult Coho: The first Snow Pass Coho returned to Whale Pass in 1998. Large numbers of these fish are harvested annually in traditional commercial gill net and troll fisheries, primarily on the north end of Prince of Wales Island, as they make their way back to Neck Lake and Burnett Inlet. The local sport fishery in Whale Pass gets intense for about a month as the fish school off Neck Creek waiting for rain before they move into the stream.
Entering Freshwater: Finally, with each low-pressure event, the fish come up the fish pass in small waves. These fish are unique, they will not move into freshwater without rain. Week-long periods of high pressure and sun see large schools build in the bay off the creek. The schools continue to grow until the weather changes. As the fish sense the pressure drop, which is usually associated with rain, they begin to move with the next tide.
Harvest: While a full harvest is 4,200 adults, this number is related to the number that can be transported to Ketchikan in one trip rather than the number that could otherwise be harvested. If the water is not excessively warm, the raceway can hold more than 6,000 adult fish. When there are sufficient fish in the raceway for harvest they are crowded toward the front of the raceway. The fish in the front of the raceway enter a hydraulic lift, or fish elevator. The fish in the elevator are lifted from the water and flow into the harvest line.
Harvest Line: As the fish slide from the elevator they are immersed in a bath that is supersaturated with CO2. The bath serves to anesthetize the fish. The fish are quickly removed from the bath and killed and bled. They then pass through several rinse totes and are immediately placed in slush ice. A full harvest results in 4,200 fish in 32 totes of slush ice. When the fish are running strong, we may harvest 3 or 4 times in a week.
Transport to Market: Within several hours of harvest the slushed fish are picked up by a local trucking firm. The fish are hauled to Hollis where they are loaded on a small ferry and moved in several hours to Ketchikan. They are quickly custom processed on the Ketchikan waterfront, placed in 50-pound wet lock boxes and refrigerated. The next step is to get the fish to Seattle. In some instances they are flown to customers while most often they are moved on the Alaska State Ferry System to Bellingham and Seattle. The fish generally reach Seattle within 36 to 48 hours of actual harvest. Because of the short time between actual harvest and the market; these are among the freshest fish in the Pacific Northwest fresh fish market. Historically, while we expect the numbers to increase, up to 50,000 fish have been harvested in a summer. SSRAA has trademarked the name Snow Pass Coho so that customers know what they are buying when they purchase these fish.