‘Flying Fish’

Originally published in Alaska Magazine

Like any good pilot, Doug Glenn cares about the safety of his passengers, especially now as he prepares to take off from a stretch of the Richardson Highway. It’s late May, and the road is clogged with tourists in RVs and dip-netters headed for the Copper River.

A makeshift flagging crew of fish hatchery workers has the traffic backed up for hundreds of yards in either direction, momentarily converting the road into a 1,800-foot runway, but the fear is that a driver might have gotten past the flaggers, or that someone might have camped on a side road the night before and will drive onto the pavement just as Glenn reaches airspeed and is about to lift off.

Glenn checks his gauges, nudges the throttle and spools up the big single turbo- prop. He glances at his passengers. They seem calm—all 650,000 of them. Never mind that Glenn’s riders might be baby salmon or rainbow trout that he needs to drop with the precision of a bomber into remote lakes. Many of these fish have been cared for in hatcheries for years, Glenn says, and nobody sleeps easy until every last one has splashed down safely.

The ‘Big Sigh’

“You can just see it in the faces of the hatchery crew, after I’ve returned from dropping the last load of the season,” said Glenn, who has done aerial stocking for nearly 30 years for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Every year, there is this big sigh of relief.”

Though Glenn isn’t one to go on about the barnstorming antics it takes to stock some lakes, the folks who raise the fish and load his plane are quick to point out that his aerial skills provide angling opportunities in lakes that otherwise might not be worthy of wetting a line.

Symphony and Rabbit lakes near Anchorage are good examples of such dicey flying, said Jeff Milton, the statewide sport fish hatchery program supervisor for Fish and Game in Anchorage.

“They’re both right up against the hillside,” he said. “You come in fast and really heavy, and you’re losing all that weight while you’re dumping the fish, but you’ve got your nose right into the mountain by the time you get done.”

In midsummer, after last year’s crop of fish had splashed down, Glenn conveyed the specifics of filling his Turbo Thrush, a hopped-up crop sprayer, with 510 gallons of water, 650,000 baby fish and dropping them into lakes. In all, Glenn estimates he’s dropped 2.2 billion baby fish since he began contracting with Fish and Game in the 1980s.

“And work is picking up,” he said. As it turns out, aerial stocking of remote lakes is a small fraction of the enhancements that Fish and Game has been up to in the past 30 years. Pick just about any reputable salmon or trout fishing hole in Alaska, and chances are good that tank trucks have dumped in thousands—if not millions of fry—smolt or adult fish, or that Glenn has buzzed over and tripped the 12-inch trap door in the belly of his plane.

In 2009, stocking projects included 36 anadromous salmon systems and 278 lakes. Among the more notable fishing spots to receive infusions of hatchery- reared salmon are the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the Susitna River and its tributaries, and preliminary estimates indicate half of last year’s fabled Copper River red run can be attributed to aerial stocking efforts at Crosswind Lake.

An Angler Day

When it comes to the business of providing fishing opportunities, it helps to think of public demand in terms of an angler day, or the efforts of one angler fishing for eight hours. The analysis of angling harvest data from 2009, which was used to develop the stocking program through 2015, found that resident and nonresident anglers put in 2.2 million angler days and caught 7.2 million fish.

To play off the popular bumper sticker that says the worst day of fishing beats the best day of work, 2.2 million angler days of opportunity translates to 440 careers for 20 years. Fisheries managers want to produce enough fish to accommodate 2.5 million angler days per year.

Managers would like at least 75 percent of anglers to be “satisfied with their sport-fishing experiences.” While 81 percent of the anglers in a 2007 survey reported such satisfaction, other studies comparing 2008 to 2009 found a 4.3 percent drop in the number of days fished, a 2.1 percent drop in the number of fish caught and a 1.4 percent drop in the number of fish harvested for consumption.

A good part of that trend could be attributed to a decline in nonresident anglers, whose numbers have fallen from about 332,000 to 252,000, according to licenses sold from 2005 to 2009. At the same time, an increase in resident anglers, from 189,000 to 195,000, has not been enough to compensate.

Despite reduced angling pressure, managers continually face pressure to increase the odds of filling more freezers, coolers and wet-lock boxes. “No matter how many fish we produce, it’s never going to be enough for everybody,” said Milton, the sport fish hatchery program supervisor.

Setting the Stage

That doesn’t mean fisheries managers aren’t willing to try.

The salmon stocking schedule in the next four years calls for the annual production of 5.2 million kings, and 1.5 million fish for coho-supporting drain- ages statewide. Rainbow trout stocking will surge from about 850,000 last year to 1.14 million in the five-year plan. Add yearly injections of more than 70,000 grayling and an average of 40,000 Arctic char, and the grand total creeps up from 7.5 million fish in 2011 to a peak of about 8.1 million fish in 2015.

That’s just for the anglers. Alaska’s commercial harvest in 2010 hit 170 million salmon, and nearly half of them were produced from fresh water stocking or the saltwater release of billions of fry. In terms of value, Alaska’s salmon fleet posted gross revenues of $534 million, of which $168 million can be attributed to stocking and other programs.

“It’s been a big boost for commercial operators, processors and all of the associated jobs,” said Bruce White, a Juneau-based fisheries biologist working with Alaska’s 31 nonprofit hatcheries. “It’s a shot in the arm for the local economies.”

Hatcheries Help

Whether stocking efforts are for the enhancement of angling opportunities or to boost commercial and subsistence harvests, the lifeblood of their success rides in the operation of hatcheries. Barring problems with a water filtration system, the $48 million Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery in Fairbanks was expected to begin producing fish this year. In September, landscaping crews were putting the final touches on the $96 million William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery in Anchorage.

The hatchery promises to return the production of rainbows, char, king and silver salmon, and even some lake trout, to what it was before 2005. Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson (now J-BER) had been sending surplus warm water from its power generation turbines to the neighboring Elmendorf State Hatchery. The warm water made it possible to keep temperatures above 55 degrees in the rearing tanks. Hotter water grows fish faster. Unfortunately, the generators were shut down in 2004 and 2005, and annual production at the hatchery has dropped by about 30 percent.

Managers hope the short-term production at the Hernandez facility will make up for what was lost at the Elmendorf hatchery. In the years to come, they hope to increase production by 50 percent.

“The new William Jack facility will allow us to return to previous stocking levels and increase stocking as the funding comes along,” Milton said. “I think what people are going to see is an increase in the number of catchable fish.”

Catchable fish are reared in the hatchery until they are about 12 inches long and then released, usually in lakes with easy access and heavy angling pressure, such as those around Anchorage

With the exception of the Gulkana Hatchery, a state-owned hatchery under contract with a regional aquaculture association that produces red salmon for commercial, subsistence and angling interests, an economic distinction between the sport and commercial fish hatcheries is that commercial hatcheries are funded through self-assessment taxes imposed on the fishermen through regional aquaculture associations.

The bulk of the money for hatcheries rearing rainbows, kings and other species for anglers, meanwhile, comes from $365 million in federal funding under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Program, Milton said. Money for enhancing fisheries is apportioned to each state based on calculations in angling pressure and the respective miles of shoreline. In 2011, Alaska, California and Texas, the top three, each received more than $18 million.

About 20 percent of the operating budget for Alaska’s sport fish hatcheries comes from license sales. Operation of Alaska’s two sport fish hatcheries costs about $4 million a year, Milton said, and a recent study found economic gains of about $27 million.

“When you look at the overall impact to the state, the economic benefits far outweigh the costs of production,” he said. While that would seem to justify the perpetuity of Alaska’s hatcheries finan- cially, workings within the hatcheries themselves are what promise world-class angling and commercial fishing opportu- nities for decades.

Spend an hour with Gary Martinek, Gulkana Hatchery manager, and you will hear the passion of a 31-year career devoted to the production of what is one of Alaska’s earliest, oiliest, most delec- table and most accessible salmon: Copper River reds.

In mid-May, commercial fishermen set their nets in the saltwater breakers off Cordova for the first salmon. While white tablecloth restaurants offer the fresh fillets to the satisfaction of their patrons, the hundreds of thousands of fish that avoided gillnets begin the 260-mile swim upriver to spawn. Less than two weeks later, subsistence fishermen line the banks of the Copper, plying the river with long-handled dip nets.

More Than Two Million Reds

Last year’s commercial harvest surpassed two million Copper River reds, and the most recent subsistence reports from 2007 suggest that more than 8,000 residents dipped out 131,000 reds. But the runs to the Copper River haven’t always been this abundant. Commercial fishing and even subsistence closures on the Copper during the 1970s played a hand in the development of one of Alaska’s most cost-effective salmon enhancement programs.

The hatchery on the Gulkana, one of the main spawning tributaries to the Copper, began in 1973 as a research site after Fish and Game biologist Ken Roberson and his colleagues walked the knee-deep waters of a canyon and discovered a series of seven fresh water springs. A critical factor in the development of the facilities at Gulkana was that the springs prevent the waters from freezing. Though the areas near the springs contained a resident population of spawning reds, the gravel beds of the stream were over- crowded to the point that one pair of mating fish would destroy the eggs of another.

In hopes of increasing survival of the eggs and hatching them into alevins, Roberson developed a system that would divert the spring-fed waters from the warm springs through plastic piping and into large plywood tanks that would serve as egg incubators.

That meant the waters would have to trickle through the incubators during the entire winter, when temperatures commonly dropped to 40 below zero. Late in the summer of 1973, Roberson and his crew stripped the milt and roe from returning sockeye, built a single incubator and filled it with 225,000 eggs.

The survival rate of the eggs that year was high enough that the next year the crew expanded its efforts by another four boxes to incubate more than a million eggs. In the years since, the Gulkana Hatchery has evolved to 134 plastic totes with a capacity of 35 million eggs. Martinek and a crew of five collect the eggs in August and September.

“The key to this operation is that the water never freezes ” Martinek said. “I made a trip out here last winter, and the temperature with the wind chill was 90 below, but the water was still flowing.”

Rate of Survival

Surveys of the salmon left in the springs to spawn on their own indicate that the survival rate of the eggs into three-quarter-inch fry is less than 16 percent, but the survival rate of the eggs that are stripped and fertilized in 5-gallon buckets and dumped into the incubators, runs close to 98 percent.

That creates the problem of what to do with 34 million hungry red salmon babies each May. As luck would have it, the Copper River has no less than three tributaries, each of which is connected to a lake. Lakes are vital in red salmon systems because the fry need to spend one or two years in fresh water before migrating out to sea.

Paxson and Summit lakes are accessible by tank truck and receive annual doses of 10 million fry each, but all bets ride on Crosswind Lake, a 25-minute flight in Glenn’s plane from Gulkana. With a surface area of more than 6,000 acres, Crosswind could be considered immense in terms of its natural salmon-rearing potential, except it lacks the gravel that returning salmon need to deposit their eggs.

“The stranglehold for Crosswind is its lack of spawning areas,” Martinek said, adding that researchers have never seen more than about 25 naturally returning adult salmon in its shallows through the years.

But what Crosswind lacks in suitable spawning substrate, it more than makes up for in nutrients that feed the phyto- plankton, which feed the zooplankton that smolts rely upon before making their exodus from the lake a year later.

Much in the way of limnological calculations must be done before fisheries biologists can secure the permitting to strip and incubate eggs from returning salmon, much less dump them out of a plane and into a lake. In sparing me those calculations, which involve an assumption that all nutrient supplies to a lake have been cut off, Martinek said that where other lakes might deplete their nutrients in five years, Crosswind could last 14.

“Crosswind is the breadbasket of the Copper River runs,” he said.

Dumping 14 million fry out of Glenn’s plane and into Crosswind every spring takes two or three days, Martinek said. Around Memorial Day, when tourism season is ramping up and the first droves of dip netters are heading for the Copper, Martinek and his crew turn to the road flaggers and stop traffic for Glenn and the bright yellow plane.

To Glenn, it’s just another day at work to blast down the highway and lift off with a load of fish. When the air is cool and the winds are calm, he can fly to open leads in the ice at Crosswind, drop the fish and make it back in 50 minutes. Glenn’s plane, a single seater, is basically a fish tank with an 840-horse turboprop, a pair of wings, a set of wheels and has been rigged with an oxygen bottle to guarantee that up to a million fry can survive the ride to their respective drop zone. Where other planes might have an extra set of gauges, Glenn’s plane has a window so that he can watch his tiny passengers for signs of stress.

Years ago, Glenn and Martinek had the hatchery crew videotape the aerial operation and learned that dropping the fish from 250 feet produced a 98 percent survival rate.

“Two-hundred-and-fifty feet is just right,” Glenn said. “The water atomizes. The fish are in the air just long enough to orient themselves so that they hit the water head first and not long enough that the freefall dries out their gills.”

Other than a bout of unexpected turbulence, which popped the cap on his fish tank and sent fish bouncing off his windshield, Glenn says stocking fish with the plane has gone without incident since 1987.

That’s what he and the department are hoping for in the assurance that Alaska’s angling reputation remains in proportions that keep anglers burning vacation time, amassing fishing tackle and heading out to their favorite fishing holes each year. ©

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