Crystal Lake Hatchery is operated by SSRAA under contract to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Sport Fish Division. This contractual relationship is unique in Alaska in that SSRAA is contracted to carry out a program historically determined by ADF&G. SSRAA does not lease the site for its own programs. The hatchery is located 17.5 miles south of Petersburg just off Mitkof Highway near the city of Petersburg’s hydroelectric power plant. The hatchery takes its name from Crystal Lake, the source of water for the power plant. The lake supplies water to the power plant and the hatchery uses water from the tailrace.
Crystal Lake Hatchery is one of the oldest currently operating hatcheries in SE Alaska. The hatchery began operations as a FRED Division facility (ADF&G) in 1973. The facility was first stocked with chinook from the Columbia River. As salmon enhancement was being developed under FRED Division, fish pathology and genetic integrity of Alaska fish stocks quickly became an important consideration. There were historic incidences of IHN Virus in the chinook stock from Washington; and in addition, the fish were not from Alaska chinook stocks. IHN Virus is a threat to chinook in Alaska, and at that time Alaska chinook stocks were not thought to carry the virus. Likewise, genetic protocol strongly suggested the use of local stocks in all enhancement activity. As a result, this first chinook stock was removed from Crystal Lake, the hatchery was totally disinfected, and FRED Division personnel began gathering chinook eggs at Andrews Creek, a tributary of the Stikine River.
Andrews Creek fish were used at the hatchery and spread from there as the initial stock used at many different chinook projects across SE Alaska.
There were several serious fish health problems at the facility during the late 1970’s. Crystal Lake was where Alaska fish culturists first learned to work around disease issues like “Bacterial Kidney Disease” (BKD, now called simply KD) and “white spot”. In the first years of the program it was not uncommon to lose close to 50% of the fertilized eggs and sac fry to “white spot”. The disease is more an environmental condition caused by accumulated stressors: excessively warm water on the broodstock, excessively cold water on eggs and fry, spikes of gas super saturation, lack of minerals in the water, and etc. It is not an infectious disease. Ultimately fisheries scientists at the Western Disease Lab discovered that lack of minerals in the water made it difficult for chinook, more than other salmonids, to recovery from excessive stress. The water at Crystal Lake was virtually distilled. King salmon don’t naturally occur in water with so little mineral content. The water was also excessively cold during the winter, and excessively warm water filled Blind Slough in front of the hatchery during some years when adults returned to spawn. Likewise, there were spikes of gas super saturation in the hatchery water supply each winter and spring. In 1980, after consultation with a fish physiologist at the University of Washington (Dr. Wedemeyer) ADF&G pathologists suggested adding calcium carbonate to the incubation water. This was done and by and large ended the issue with “white spot”. This is still being done during incubation today.
At the same time white spot issues were being examined ADF&G pathologists were applying real-time screening for BKD among spawning adults, using fluorescent antibody. The fertilized eggs from infected adults were removed and destroyed. This is still being done in rare situations in 2009, though the incidence of KD has been dramatically reduced with the use of antibiotic treatment of heavily infected spawning populations.
Crystal Lake was chosen as a hatchery site because of the existent hydroelectric plant and water source. While initially this water source made the hatchery attractive, in retrospect the volume and quality of the water has limited the growth and on occasion the productivity of the facility. Today Crystal Lake has twice the raceways that it can effectively use; there is only enough water available to provide an effective flow for half the raceways when filled with normal rearing densities. Regardless, the hatchery has made a lot of adult chinook salmon across the years and the Andrew Creek Chinook Stock from Crystal Lake has been used in a number of large effective chinook enhancement programs across SE Alaska.
Fish from Crystal Lake are released in three different programs. The largest release (600,000 smolt) is at the hatchery site, into Blind Slough. Returning adults from this release are harvested by commercial trollers and local sport anglers. The sport fishery in Blind Slough itself can annually provide a harvest of more than 4,000 adult fish. There are few successful recreational bank fisheries for chinook in SE Alaska, and this is the largest. The adult fish returning to Blind Slough also serve as brood to continue production at the facility. The release into Blind Slough is a Sport Fish (ADF&G) funded project.
Another 450,000 Andrews Creek smolts are annually transported to Anita Bay for release. Adult fish returning to Anita Bay are harvested by commercial trollers and both net fleets, drift and seine. Historically very few of the fish released at Anita Bay have been harvested by recreational anglers. For a number of years this project has been funded by SSRAA.
In addition to the Andrews Creek fish, about 500,000 Chickamin River Chinook smolt are produced in Crystal Lake each year. This is a Behm Canal stock that is used exclusively by SSRAA in Ketchikan area releases. Chickamin River chinook eggs are transported from Whitman Lake Hatchery (SSRAA) to Crystal Lake each fall. Yearling Chickamin River smolt are transported from Crystal Lake Hatchery each spring to Neets Bay where they are fed in saltwater and released. Adults from this release contribute heavily to Ketchikan area sport fisheries as well as spring hatchery access troll fisheries, regional drift gill net fisheries as well as an early June terminal seine and drift harvest in the Neets Bay Terminal Harvest Area. The SSRAA cost recovery fishery cleans up the unharvested fish in late June through early July. This project is funded with both Sport Fish funds and by SSRAA.
Crystal Lake also produces about 150,000 Crystal Creek Coho smolt for release each spring. This production was included in the initial management plan as mitigation for blocking Crystal Creek to adult coho at the hatchery site. This program has also produced a number of fish across the years the hatchery has been operated. The fish are primarily harvested by troll gear and local recreational anglers, though some are caught in drift gear.
The hatchery has served many purposes across the years: an important role in the development of chinook culture in Alaska; a source of broodstock for many current larger chinook programs in SE Alaska; an insurance policy against broodstock shortfalls in other programs; and provided numerous fish in the recreational fishery creel as well as the commercial fisherman’s hold. Individually, a chinook remains far and away the most valuable salmon to both sport and commercial fishermen. Though she may sometimes shows her age, Crystal Lake remains a critical factor in the enhancement of chinook fisheries across all of SE Alaska.