Neets Bay Hatchery: If such a thing can be said; the Neets Bay/Whitman Lake Hatchery Program is SSRAA’s flagship. SSRAA’s hatchery program started at Whitman Lake with Neets Bay serving as a remote release site for fish produced at Whitman Lake. In the early 1980’s the hatchery was built in Neets Bay and the two facilities have worked together in what is now a large complex interrelated program that fully utilizes the available water and space at each site.
Neets Bay Hatchery is located at the outfall of Neets Creek at the head of Neets Bay, about 40 miles north of Ketchikan. The site is remote in that there is no road access, one must either fly or travel by boat to reach Neets Bay. Some of SSRAA’s history at Neets Bay is captured in “SSRAA’s First Ten Years” by Pat Roppel – also on the web page.
The hatchery produces summer and fall chum, fall coho and chinook salmon. All chum salmon utilized in SSRAA’s programs start at Neets with eggs collected from the broodstock returning to the site. The summer chums are originally from the Carroll River in Carroll Inlet near Ketchikan while the fall fish come from Disappearance Creek in Cholmondelly Sound on Prince of Wales Island. The hatchery annually produces about 120 million summer chum fry and 33 million fall chum fry. These fish are released at several remote sites as well as in Neets Bay itself: 30 million summer fry in Kendrick Bay (including some “late-large” smolt); 8 million summer fry and 8 million fall fry in Nakat Inlet; 22 million summer fry in Anita Bay; and 60 million summer fry and 20 million fall fry in Neets Bay. All the fish released at the Nakat, Kendrick and Anita sites are intended only for common property harvest. Significant numbers of fish returning to Neets are harvested by commercial common property harvesters as they pass through traditional fisheries. The fish that make their way through those traditional fisheries back to Neets Bay are harvested by SSRAA to provide most of the revenue needed for SSRAA’s programs as well as serving as broodstock for continuing the programs.
Summer and a fall chum, what’s the difference; one returns early (summer) and the other later (fall) in the season extending the fishery. Fish are cold blooded animals. The development of fry from fertilized eggs is a temperature dependent process and it goes slower in cooler water; faster in warmer water. Most large hatchery populations of chum salmon in SE are summer chum. These fish come from more “inside” areas next to steeper interior mountains where the influence of snow pack cools the waters in the early summer and brings cooler water in the fall and winter than water in more “outside” island systems, where there is less snowpack influence and the water is generally warmer. Summer chum come from the cooler areas and must return and get their eggs in the gravel earlier than the island fish, fall chum; so that all the fry can enter saltwater at about the same time during the most productive period in the spring. There are some exceptions to the inside vs. outside generalization, primarily when there is a large lake in the system acting like a “heat reservoir”; but the generalization holds pretty well for most chum stocks.
SSRAA’s summer chum more naturally fit the environment at Neets while the fall fish have not done as well there. The summer chum return a month earlier than the fall fish and the natural temperature conditions in Neets Creek match their normal requirements. The fall fish return later and don’t experience enough accumulated temperature in the waters from Neets Creek to emerge at the appropriate time in the spring. We have recently taken some steps to add heat to the water (heat exchanger in saltwater) used to warm and speed the incubation of fall chum eggs and sac fry to more closely mimic their natural situation. With any luck, if the fry can be made to emerge at the same time in the spring and reach the same size prior to release, the fall chum should do as well as the summers.
Chum produced at Neets Bay are caught throughout the southern SE region, primarily by net gear with seiners predominating the harvest with large numbers also caught by drift gill net gear. Most of the fish are harvested in traditional fisheries in District 101 through District 108, inclusive. Some of the fish are harvested in the Terminal Harvest Areas at Nakat, Kendrick, Anita and Neets. Though trollers can’t often compete with net gear in the harvest of chums in traditional fisheries; when the return is large enough to support additional harvest (more than required cost recovery and broodstock), there is an exclusive chum troll sanctuary fishery in the Neets Bay THA.
Neets is also the site of what is probably the largest long-term fall coho program in SE Alaska. Though in recent years, because of available water and raceway space, SSRAA has released closer to 3 million fish, the site is permitted for a release of 5 million fall coho smolt. The coho program at Neets is very much a shared program with Whitman Lake. All fall coho eggs are collected at Whitman. Most of the coho production comes to Neets as eyed eggs from Whitman with the juveniles reared in raceways and sea bags at Neets Bay. About a third of the total release is transported to Neets in the spring from Whitman as smolt. These fish are reared in sea water prior to release at Neets.
This release can produce an annual return of more than 500,000 adult coho, though more often the return is between 200,000 and 300,000 adult fish. More than half of these fish are usually harvested by the troll fleet in northern outside waters in the general area of Sitka (District 113). Large numbers of fall coho are also harvested by the drift fleet as they pass through more inside waters from the north toward the southern inside location of Neets Bay. More than 15,000 fall coho from Neets have been harvested in a single season by recreational anglers in the Ketchikan area. The fall coho that reach Neets Bay, usually less than 20% of the total adult return, are cleaned up in cost recovery harvest by SSRAA.
There is also a significant chinook salmon program at Neets Bay. About 500,000 (Chickamin River stock) chinook eggs are sent from Whitman Lake to Crystal Lake Hatchery each fall. These eggs/fry are incubated and reared at Crystal Lake for about 18 months. Each spring these fish, about 450,000 Chickamin River stock chinook smolts, are transported to Neets Bay from Crystal Lake Hatchery. The fish are reared in net pens at Neets for several months before release. In addition, each spring about 250,000 Chickamin River chinook smolts are transported to Neets from Whitman where they were incubated and reared for the previous 18 months. These fish are also reared in net pens for several months prior to release. The total chinook release at Neets Bay is comprised of these two groups. The total return generally exceeds 20,000 adult chinook. These fish contribute to spring hatchery access troll fisheries, local sport fisheries, spring rotational net fisheries in Neets Bay, and are cleaned up during cost recovery.
Neets Bay in the summer: our flagship becomes a three-ring circus! The processor licensed to harvest in Neets Bay is a large operation.
Wait…there is more! ProMech, a local flight charter company, flies up to between 300 and 400 tourists out to Neets Bay a day from about 25 July through early September to watch the black bears that predictably gather in Neets Creek behind the hatchery to eat the broodstock gathered in Neets Creek. During the 45 minute to 1 hour visit, a tourist can usually see 8 or 10 bears feeding in the river. On occasion these numbers have been considerably larger; several years ago 51 bears were counted in one viewing window! The tour guides also live on the site.
And…from about 10 July through the end of the month up to 50 commercial trollers follow several “drags” through the bay catching summer chum salmon in Neets Bay. This fishery is capped at 200,000 fish.
Abruptly at the end of September…the Lucky Buck leaves, the last of the trollers, seiners, and tenders have gone back to Ketchikan, the barrier seine comes down and is stored, leased tourist planes have long since left Ketchikan, the bears have disappeared from the creek, temporary workers hired to help with egg take have said good bye, the last of the fall coho are getting dark and only a few jumpers leave the water while the sea lions that followed them into the bay begin to disappear; and the photo goes to black and white. December’s snow and darker skies find about 8 or 9 people on the site…bad weather, deep snow, and sometimes a sheet of ice over the bay limit their coming and going…watching a building filled with 140 million incubating chum salmon eggs and sac fry and raceways and sea bags filled with 2 million juvenile coho.
Workers move through the dark building with miners lights strapped to their foreheads so they can see to work. The water temperature is carefully manipulated to “thermally tag” different groups of chum salmon. When the eggs have “eyed” the unfertilized and dead eggs are picked to diminish the impact of fungus on egg-filled incubators. Another set of workers from Ketchikan comes out to the bay for several weeks to place coded wire tags in rearing coho.
And those who stay the year around, wait through sometime “cabin fever” episodes for spring…
In early spring, nets are placed in pens frames and the first emergent summer chum fry are moved to saltwater and placed in the pens. The feed barge arrives and the containers of fish food are unloaded and stored. Several long-term temporary workers arrive and eventually several large arrays of net pens are all filled with literally tens of millions of hungry chum salmon fry that are eating tons of feed a day. Other tens of millions of fry are loaded on SSRAA’s contract tenders whose spring task is to transport juvenile fish to Nakat, Kendrick and Anita Bay where they will be reared for about 3 months until release.
SSRAA’s maintenance staff and contracted construction workers arrive every spring to build the latest capital project, repair a dock, a building, construct a new tourist trail back to the bears, rebuild a portion of the bunk house, or just assist the resident maintenance worker with his many spring tasks.
The chinook from Crystal Lake and Whitman arrive in the last spring transport.
The remote float camps from Kendrick, Anita and Nakat are towed back to the bay and find their summer anchorage. Finally, the barrier net is cleaned, repaired and placed at the head of the bay (to hold the broodstock in and the cost recovery fish out)…and harvest equipment is repaired and readied for the first returning fish in about 3 weeks.
The last spring smolt, coho, chinook, and the final fall chum are released by June 1.
A couple of gill net boats have fished the bay since late May, every several days, trying to catch the first of the returning kings…soon they are joined by the first of several seiners that get their crews in place early in the season to catch these fish. This local fishery builds until the last seine rotation ends on 24 June.
On about 15 June, the Lucky Buck arrives and its workforce builds over the next several days. The crew gets ready and the Buck is “ready, willing and able” to begin a long summer of processing on 25 June. At 5 am we get together in the “lounge” of the “Seven Seas” for a long cup of coffee and tales of the past 9 months…the seiners leave their cups to pull away from the dock at 6am with tenders following…
A new season of trollers, tourists, bears, egg takes…
If SSRAA has a flagship, if we can say that, it is Neets Bay Hatchery.