Deer Mountain a Historical Perspective:
Deer Mountain is one of the oldest hatcheries in Alaska. The current hatchery sits 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. The $16,000 mortgage for the building was paid off over a nine-year period with proceeds of the Ketchikan King Salmon Derby. At the time it was called Deermount Hatchery. Deermount was operated by the state under a lease from the city of Ketchikan. The hatchery produced steelhead and rainbow trout as well as chinook and coho salmon. In 1971 the state closed the facility.
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):
Several years later the legislature appropriated funds for the operation of Deer Mountain by the borough school system. The school district and Ketchikan Pulp Co. agreed to run and maintain the hatchery which was used to incubate pink salmon eggs. In 1977, the Ketchikan Borough and the Economic Development Authority renovated the facility and ADF&G’s Fisheries Rehabilitation Enhancement and Development Division (FRED) assumed the operations.
Under FRED the program at the site was more diverse, and 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 were 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.
Among the salmon enhancement factors assessed at the site, perhaps the most significant outcome involved testing different rearing densities of juvenile chinook salmon related to their eventual survival to adult. The outcome of the experiments resulted in 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. FRED staff also experimented with procedures that neutered chinook and rainbow trout. The thought was that if a chinook didn’t have the biological 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 (by coded wire tag) in harvest anywhere in Alaska. The trout used to enhance local Ketchikan lakes were sterilized by a simple procedure, manipulating the temperature of the eggs at a specific time during incubation. This process was deemed necessary at the time since those fish came from elsewhere in the state and sterile fish 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.
In 1994, as FRED dissolved, hatcheries producing fish for commercial fisheries were passed to private nonprofit organizations, or closed. At that point the Ketchikan Tribal Hatchery Corporation (KTHC) took over Deer Mountain Hatchery. Under KTHC, salmon production was dramatically decreased and the facility also functioned as a tourist attraction. Due to long-term financial loss related to the hatchery, KTHC ceased 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. November 2014 saw a transfer of ownership from the City of Ketchikan to SSRAA contingent on the operation of Deer Mountain as a hatchery and the yearly release of approximately 100,000 chinook smolt into Ketchikan Creek.
Significant renovation of Deer Mountain was necessary so that the facility could meet SSRAA production goals. Several funding sources were available; a deferred maintenance grant from the state, a Chinook mitigation grant, and insurance funds for water damage caused by a broken pipe at the facility. Subsequent upgrades included: new modern fish rearing circulars, refinishing a large part of the building to include the residence for a hatchery manager, and ongoing design/construction related to tourism and outreach operations. Additional upgrades will occur in the coming years to include recirculation incubation capabilities which will enable all or part of the Deer Mountain production to be reared onsite.
In 2014, SSRAA’s Whitman Lake Hatchery was permitted to begin releasing king salmon in Ketchikan Creek through the Deer Mountain site. The release and subsequent releases will meet our commitment to the City as well as develop a brood stock alternative or back up for Whitman Lake.
Present Day (2017):
Deer Mountain is currently operating at full capacity, rearing approximately 500,000 juvenile chinook annually. Young fish are transported to Deer Mountain from Whitman Lake in late June or early July weighing 1-2 grams. The eggs that produced the fry are collected from adults returning to Whitman Lake in July and August of the previous year. The eggs are incubated at Whitman and emerge as fry in late winter or early spring when they are ponded into raceways or circulars for startup feeding.
Once the fry reach Deer Mountain they fit into one of two groups based on where they will be released as smolt. One group of 400,000 fish will be released from net pens in Carroll Inlet. The rearing goal for this group is to produce a 12-15 gram parr or smolt by mid-April of the following year. These fish will then be transported to the net pens in upper Carroll Inlet. The smolt will be reared there in saltwater for approximately one month. The young chinook grow rapidly in saltwater and will imprint on the release site where they will return as adults.
The release site in upper Carroll Inlet is located between Falls Creek and Carroll River, approximately 1 to 1 ½ hours by boat or 15 minutes by plane from Ketchikan. SSRAA and Southeast Alaska Power Authority (SEAPA) have an agreement that allows SSRAA to use the hydroelectric site at Swan Lake as a temporary living accommodation and for the storage for rearing equipment. The KPU staff who are contracted to oversee operations at Swan Lake have been helpful as we resurrect our old release site (SSRAA released chinook in Carroll Inlet for a short period more than 20 years ago.).
The second group, 100,000 fish for release in Ketchikan Creek, will be reared in the facility to a size of 25 grams. The larger size is needed because these fish will not have the benefit of the accelerated growth that can be realized in salt water net pens. The fish in Carroll and at Deer Mountain will be released in mid-May of each year.
In addition to those fish released in Ketchikan Creek, Deer Mountain produces approximately 1,500 juvenile chinook for the City Park Kids Fishing Derby held every June. This is a cooperative effort between SSRAA, US Forest Service (USFS) and the City of Ketchikan. Most of these fish have been reared for 1 year at Deer Mountain and average between 40-60 grams. About 50-100 smolt are held over and reared for 2 years which can have them approaching a 450 grams or about a pound.
Deer Mountain isn’t currently a hatchery in the strictest sense as eggs are not taken from returning broodstock and incubated at the site, thus the name “hatchery”. Egg collection and incubation occurs at Whitman Lake Hatchery also located on the Ketchikan road system. Later in the spring of 2017 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.
Benefits of Deer Mountain:
Though these are “common property” fish, the chinook salmon produced at Deer Mountain are intended mainly to benefit local troll fisheries. SSRAA historically operated a remote release site for chinook in Carroll Inlet; but because it was uncertain whether trollers could effectively harvest chinook in terminal areas, 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 becomes feasible.
There is another issue involved in choosing Carroll Inlet as a release site. In the past several years wild stocks of chinook in Behm Canal have not always met escapement goals. This is not a frequent occurrence, but when it occurs, local corridor fisheries traversed by back-Behm chinook are curtailed or even closed 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. This same issue comes into play annually with local Ketchikan sport fisheries.
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. After common property fisheries have run their course, SSRAA will deploy a seiner or 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.
Deer Mountain is also once again involved with research. Just as it was during FRED’s time, the modest production and hands on ability at Deer Mountain lends to small scale experimentation with Chinook and other salmon species that could lead to production improvements in the future. SSRAA’S Research and Development department is now concluding its first year of alternative otolith marking methods research. The benefits of this research could be long reaching for SSRAA and the salmon enhancement industry as a whole.
Education and outreach programs are in the beginning stages at Deer Mountain. Several tours have been given to local schools and some hands-on activities have started. “Salmon in the Classroom” has shifted from being the sole responsibility of Whitman Lake and is now shared with a vision of expanding through the use of Deer Mountain. For those who may be unfamiliar with Salmon in the Class Room SSRAA style, it consists of a local school applying for and receiving a permit from ADFG. With support from SSRAA staff, a donation of eggs usually coho or chinook is made as well as subsequent classroom visits and discussions with SSRAA staff. The students monitor development and record various rearing data until the eggs hatch. Once juvenile emergence occurs, start-up feeding commences. These programs usually start in January or February and conclude at the end of the school year. It’s a great opportunity to enrich the educational experience of local students.
The summer of 2017 will have a “Soft” opening of Deer Mountain for tourist operations. It is our hope that by early July Deer Mountain will be open for limited hours Monday-Friday. Locals and tourists alike will have the opportunity to walk through a portion of the facility and see the day to day operations of a working fish hatchery.
Deer Mountain provides benefits, directly related to its accessibility and scale, not available at other SSRAA sites. While Deer Mountain is small and may not have much room to grow in terms of fish production, the benefits the hatchery and staff can provide are unique and important to SSRAA, local fishermen, and the larger Ketchikan community.