Burnett Inlet Hatchery is located relatively near Wrangell in Burnett Inlet on Etolin Island. Some semblance of the hatchery has been in place for almost 30 years. The facility was first constructed by Alaska Aquaculture Company to produce chum salmon. The hatchery was linked with a release site in Anita Bay, where cost recovery was planned. The hatchery was eventually permitted for releases of about 60 million summer chum fry each year. In several years relatively large numbers of summer chum were produced and released in both Burnett Inlet itself and in Anita Bay, but it is doubtful that the full permitted capacity was ever reached. Alaska Aquaculture had serious fiscal difficulties and the program wound down to bankruptcy in the mid 1990’s. The State offered the site to SSRAA, who took over the facility in 1995.
SSRAA had developed an underyearling sockeye smolt program, but had reached a point of general agreement among constituents that the program was not going to meet expectations. At the time, the organization was not willing to give up on the hope of adding significant new production of sockeye or coho for regional harvest.
Summer coho are a unique fish found in several lake systems in SE Alaska. The fish can be described as a coho that behaves like a sockeye. The fish return in June and July and like a sockeye they immediately enter lake systems. They hold in the lakes until fall and spawn at the same time as the more common fall coho. SSRAA had access to the Reflection Lake stock of summer coho that had been released from Deer Mountain Hatchery (FRED Division of ADF&G and later Ketchikan Indian Corporation) in the Ketchikan area for a number of years. We decided to produce a large number of these fish as fry at Burnett Inlet and then transfer of the fry to Neck Lake in Whale Pass, directly across Clarence Straits from the facility, where they would be reared to smolt-sized fish.
SSRAA retrofit the hatchery to accommodate the summer coho and in addition added several “isolation” units so that the hatchery could also work with sockeye. Fish pathology guidelines in Alaska don’t allow sockeye culture in any facility where they might come in contact with other salmon susceptible to IHN Virus, a disease universally found in anadromous sockeye. As such, sockeye can’t be cultured in any common facilities with either chum or chinook salmon. Since Burnett’s program was now summer coho, and coho are not susceptible to IHN Virus; it was acceptable to rear sockeye in the facility without any extraordinary precautions. Regardless, SSRAA constructed several small areas that were in essence “isolation rooms” where sockeye could be incubated, thermally tagged and reared without coming in contact with any other fish at the site.
The first summer coho fry (700,000) were flown to Neck Lake in the spring of 1996. The fish were reared in net pens in Neck Lake until fall when they were released in the lake. The first summer coho smolt migrated out of Neck Lake in the spring of 1997 and returned as adults to the raceway below the falls at Neck Lake in 1998. The summer coho program, we call the fish Snow Pass Coho, has been in operation since that time. We annually rear from 1.5 to 1.7 million coho in Neck Lake. The fish are now held through the winter in net pens. Feeding is initiated again in the spring and the fish are released in mid May to outmigrate at the same time as naturally produced fish. From 200,000 to 250,000 summer coho are also released annually at the hatchery itself to generate the broodstock necessary to continue the program.
We have also produced yearling sockeye smolts for release at Burnett and from the raceway at Neck Lake, though this program has not proved successful and was discontinued in 2008.
The isolation modules are currently being used to produce sockeye smolt for return to McDonald Lake. This is part of a three-year program designed to help restore the sockeye population in McDonald Lake as well as add a number of tagged adult McDonald sockeye to harvest. The first smolt from this work were released in the spring of 2009. The last smolt from this program will be released in the spring of 2011.
There are immediate changes planned for Burnett. The hatchery will soon be slightly modified, taking it back to its original chum salmon days. Once we are done with the McDonald sockeye we will be able to produce about 22 million chum fry a year. Currently the plan is to take these fish to Anita Bay for release and release some of the current fry produced at Neets Bay and Whitman Lake in other places: 10 million additional fry in Kendrick Bay and 12 million additional fry at Neets Bay. The summer coho program is compatible with the new chum production and currently SSRAA does not plan to alter coho production.
The isolation modules will be retained. This is the only spot in SSRAA facilities where sockeye can be produced and it is important to retain the potential to work with these fish.