Healthy hatchery fish flee the nest

DIPAC chums much bigger than average, could signal larger haul for Juneau fishermen

There comes a time in every parent’s life that they have to let go. On Wednesday, Charlie Currit and his crew had to say goodbye 6 million times.

 

Currit manages hatchery salmon for Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery, who released 6 million chum salmon into Gastineau Channel at an afternoon high tide on Wednesday.

It’s the culmination of three months of work for Currit and his three crew working DIPAC’s “net pens”: basically large, mesh-protected areas of water which lie in open water. There, they regularly feed and weigh the fish for about three months, waiting for them to grow for a certain size before releasing them.

Every little bit of weight the fish can pack on counts, said operations manager Brock Meredith.

“They are huge numbers … but a very small percentage return,” Meredith said. “For every half a gram that they’re released at is another half a percent ocean survival. So our goal is to get the fish as big as we can prior to the water getting too warm and things getting too stressful in the marine environment in their net pen.”

Technically, the fish are property of Alaskans. As a private nonprofit hatchery — one of 13 in Southeast Alaska and 24 in the state — DIPAC doesn’t own the fish they release.

But in every other sense of the word, DIPAC plays parent to 135 million chum, 1.2 million coho and 1.5 million chinook salmon.

DIPAC just recently had their permitting increased from 125 million chum to 135 million. In all, DIPAC operates 49 net pens at five different release points near Juneau.

Cool water and quality food are key, both of which DIPAC fish enjoyed this year. At final weight, taken just before release, Currit found the DIPAC-reared fish at 5.2 grams, overshooting their goal of 4 grams.

That’s hardly a whopper of a fish, but at a little less than a year old, that is actually near DIPAC’s record average release weight for their onsite net pens. (Meredith said he’d have to check the record books to be sure on this).

DIPAC had a 7-gram average weight at one of their net pens at Amagla Harbor, an “anomoly” Meredith added, and broke size records this year at a net pen in Limestone Inlet, south of Juneau.

“We’ve got size goals, particularly with the chums and the Chinook. We’ve got a size threshold we’re trying to achieve,” Meredith said. “Four grams, particularly with these later releases we’re trying to reach four grams. If the conditions are good, we’ll try to push beyond that, and this year the water temperature stayed cold enough that we could push them beyond that.”

Two to six years later the chum will attempt to make it back to DIPAC. Many of them will be caught by commercial fisherman working gillnet boats on the mouth of Taku River. That increase in size could mean a bigger catch for gillnet boats targeting chum.

To release the fish, Currit and three other DIPAC workers simply pulled up the net, letting the smolt, or “fed fry” free into their wild environs.

The hatchery has released salmon at different sites around the Juneau area since 1976. Not to be confused with fish farming, the system operates more like a salmon ranch, Meredith said.

They incubate and grow fish, then let them live most of their lives in the wild before they return to replenish DIPAC’s supply and fishermen’s holds.

DIPAC had released 6 million chum previously this year. When asked if they all feel like his babies, Currit said “absolutely.”


• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.


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Tue, 08/22/2017 - 06:07

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