Neck Lake is a unique project: a hatchery in a lake, a raceway that seines, and coho that think they are sockeye.
Neck Lake is on the eastern coast of Prince of Wales Island draining into Whale Pass. 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. As you pass Neck Lake, you may notice a small flotilla of net pens. This is the “hatchery”, but not really a hatchery. Salmon eggs are not collected or incubated at the site, but close to 4 million young coho are reared for a year, from just-hatched fry to teen agers, in the net pens. The summer coho smolt, half of the fish rearing in the lake, leave the pens and launch themselves over the falls on Neck Creek to enter salt water in Whale Pass. The fall coho, the other half of the fish rearing in Neck Lake, are moved from the pens to transport vessels and taken to Neets Bay or Anita Bay where they are reared for another short period before being released.
As you travel further down the highway toward the small community of Whale Pass, while crossing the bridge at Neck Creek, you’ll pass several buildings and a raceway. This is where the returning summer coho, those that are not caught in commercial and sport fisheries, end their journey when they travel up the fish pass at the base of the falls and enter the raceway. Returning adult fish are harvested from the raceway and sold to help pay for the project. This final migration of summer coho is documented on the attached video.
History: It’s not a short story, but we’ll make it that. SSRAA was among the first organizations, with the FRED Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to try to enhance sockeye salmon fisheries. Through the 1970’s sockeye enhancement was considered at best difficult, but more often impossible, because of a virus (IHNV) found in all sockeye stocks. As research led to a better understanding of the virus; fish culturists, working with fish pathologists, found ways to culture around the devastating impact of IHNV in the hatchery environment. One of the first steps in modern sockeye culture occurred when SSRAA initiated a program to produce under yearling (zero check) sockeye smolt at Beaver Falls Hatchery on the Ketchikan Road System. The short of it is that this program did not meet expectations and was discontinued. At about the same time the private nonprofit organization that built Burnett Inlet Hatchery failed and entered bankruptcy. As the Regional Association, SSRAA had first right of refusal to assume the facility at Burnett Inlet. While Burnett was designed and permitted as a chum hatchery, at that time (mid 1990’s) the industry was not looking for additional chum production resulting in more terminal pale –meated chum salmon in the marketplace. SSRAA was looking for a yearling smolt program that would produce “quality” fish (coho, sockeye, or chinook) to benefit drift fisheries in Districts 106/108.
For some years FRED Division had worked with a unique salmon, the summer coho. There was a relatively small program culturing these fish through Deer Mountain Hatchery in Ketchikan. The original broodstock were collected from Reflection Lake in Behm Canal. The fish were released at the hatchery site on Ketchikan Creek and in Ward Lake on the Ketchikan road system. Survival of the fish was generally good, sometimes exceptional.
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 from early (June) through mid-summer (early August) and hold in the deep cooler waters of a lake. This is the same life history pattern most often used by sockeye…except the summer coho may hold longer than sockeye before spawning. In late October through mid-November, they leave the deep water of the lake and spawn in the lake’s tributaries. In essence they spawn at the same time the far more common fall coho spawn. After emergence from the gravel the juvenile fish return to the lake where they rear for at least a year before going to saltwater. They are unique in other ways: they enter freshwater with high fat content and “set” scales. Related to harvest, they are generally in better condition when caught than a fall coho; they have stopped feeding in saltwater, scales are set and not easily lost, and the fish have greater fat content which makes them desirable to knowledgeable consumers. We call them “Snowpass Coho”, and they are sometimes marketed in the Pacific Northwest (including Seattle’s Pike Street Fish Market) that way.
Back to the story: as SSRAA simultaneously gave up producing under yearling sockeye smolt and had the opportunity to utilize Burnett Inlet Hatchery, they explored the option of producing a relatively large number of summer coho at Burnett. The eggs would be collected from broodstock released at the hatchery, some of the fish would be retained at Burnett, but most would be moved a short distance across Clarence Strait to Neck Lake where they would be reared in net pens and released. The first group of summer coho fry was moved to Neck Lake in the spring of 1996. These fish left the lake as smolt the following spring and returned as adults in 1998. As is sometimes the case, this first release experienced the best survival the project has ever seen. At the same time the fish have generally done well. Currently about 1.7 million summer coho are annually reared and released in Neck Lake.
It was important to the Department of Fish and Game that the returning adults not stray into adjacent streams in Whale Pass. While it isn’t generally possible for a summer coho to survive in a system without a large lake, it is still deemed best to separate enhanced fish from wild stocks. At the upper reach of the highest tides on Neck Creek there is an impassable water fall. SSRAA built a fish pass draining into the pool below these falls with a raceway at the top of the fish pass. Returning Snow Pass Coho climb the fish pass as they are blocked by the falls and enter the raceway. They are harvested from the raceway (up to 70,000 annually); moved quickly by truck and ferry to Ketchikan where they are processed; and then quickly transported to the Pacific Northwest where they are sold as fresh fish. In essence all returning adults are harvested in sport and commercial common property fisheries or from the raceway.
Significant common property fisheries have developed around this return. They are annually caught by the drift fishery in Clarence Strait (up to 60,000), the troll fishery at Point Baker (up to 15,000), and the recreational fishery in Whale Pass (up to 30,000).
And then…in 2012 SSRAA doubled the number of net pens in Neck Lake. SSRAA’s fall coho program was increased by 2 million fish, some of these were previously released in Bakewell Lake and some were entirely new production. All of the available water and raceway space in SSRAA hatchery facilities was being utilized. Fall coho were being produced in Bakewell Lake and additional permitted production was planned for Connell Lake on the Ketchikan road system. Because of difficulty in permitting these projects, Bakewell Lake is partially in a wilderness area and Connell Lake was designated by the US Forest Service for other “more aesthetic” uses that were deemed incompatible with fish rearing, there was no place to rear the coho. Since we were already utilizing Neck Lake, we decided to simply double the net pen capacity and add another 2 million juvenile coho to the site.
There was one complication; because of adjacent wild populations of fall coho, these fish could not be released in Neck Creek. So, every spring the fish are pumped from the net pens into a transport truck. They are moved down the highway to saltwater where they are pumped into a large transport vessel. The smolt travel by vessel for about 12 hours to Neets Bay or Anita Bay where they are pumped into net pens. They are reared for a month in the pens and then released.
Egg Collection: about 2 million summer coho eggs are now collected and fertilized each year at Burnett Inlet Hatchery from adult fish returning to that site. After the fry hatch about 1.7 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 two million fall coho eggs for this project are collected at Whitman Lake Hatchery. Eggs are held at Whitman Lake until they hatch and the fry can be flown from Ketchikan to Neck Lake. Burnett is undergoing another modification this summer (2015) and will go full circle to again become a chum hatchery and serve as an alternate broodstock source to Neets Bay for both summer and fall chum salmon. Since summer chum and summer coho return at the same time, the summer coho broodstock will be moved to Whitman Lake Hatchery. The majority of the summer coho still be reared and released from Neck Lake while the 200,000 fish needed to produce broodstock will be reared and released at Whitman Lake.
Neck Lake Pre-smolt Project: the fry (summer and fall coho) moved to Neck Lake are reared in net pens through the summer and well into fall. The fish are taken off feed in mid-November; at this point the water in Neck Lake is cold and fish enter a dormant state. As water warms in the spring fish are once again fed for a short period prior to release or transport. As the fish get ready for migration to saltwater, a change called smolting; we release the fish in the lake (summer coho) or transport them to Neets Bay (fall coho). Smolt released in the lake leave in Neck Creek, going over the small barrier falls, and move to saltwater in Whale Pass. From there they move north through Clarence Strait to the open ocean where they remain for 14 months. After 14 months at sea, those fish that have survived will return. Likewise the fall coho released at Neets Bay follow the same corridor to the open ocean, though their route is longer.
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 until they are harvested.
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 usually 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: 4,200 adults are harvested in a single day when possible as this is the number of fish that can be transported to Ketchikan in one trip. 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 of 4,200 fish fills 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 harvest and the market; these are among the freshest fish in the Pacific Northwest fresh fish market. Up to 70,000 fish have been harvested by SSRAA in a season and likewise as few as 17,000 during the smallest return. SSRAA has trademarked the name “Snow Pass Coho” so that customers know what they are buying when they purchase these fish. Though it falls short of covering all costs, the revenue generated by the sale of the fish is used to pay for the project.