AFOGNAK — Creating salmon life isn’t easy — there’s an exact science to it, and a lot of physical labor is required.
On Friday, 13 volunteers and Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association employees worked on an assembly line at Afognak Lake to collect and fertilize sockeye salmon eggs for Pillar Creek Hatchery.
Egg takes like these happen at different places across the Kodiak archipelago, but the ultimate goal is the same: create fish for fishermen.
Estimates released last year stated that roughly one-quarter of the salmon caught around Kodiak come from KRAA hatcheries.
Whether those fish come from the giant hatchery at Kitoi Bay or the smaller one at Pillar Creek, the process is roughly the same.
Drew Walter, a KRAA employee, led this year’s Afognak Lake salmon egg take for the first time.
“It was a little different being completely solo,” Walter told the Kodiak Daily Mirror. “Until the eggs are in the incubators, I won’t be unstressed. I’m responsible for them from the time they leave the fish until they get to the hatchery.”
Two floatplanes dropped off volunteers to waiting KRAA workers who camped overnight on a nearby island.
Workers donned waders and Alaska perfume — bug spray — as they prepared. They also disinfected themselves with an iodine solution to prevent the spread of IHN, a fatal virus that can destroy fish populations.
To create new salmon, mature ones have to be killed.
Five pens filled with sockeye salmon, separated by sex, were ready when workers got off the planes.
Walter designated assignments to people as he walked the group through the egg take process, starting with killing a “hen” by breaking the fish’s neck. Sockeye are sensitive, he explained, and that method is the best way to avoid damaging the eggs. In the other pen, Sergio Hernandez killed a “buck” salmon by clubbing it.
Three female salmon and two males were dunked in a bucket of disinfectant and were taken to a spawning station. Workers extracted the eggs from the females using small knives. They had to make sure the fish were completely over the bowls before opening the salmon up, spilling eggs from its bulging sides.
“It’s the pitter patter of little eggs,” Walter said as the group watched him empty the eggs into a bowl.
Each female salmon had a separate bowl for its eggs to make sure the virus was not spread if a fish had it. The bowls were then moved to the buck station where milt was emptied into the bowl. The ratio was two male salmon to three female salmon. Water was then added to activate the milt so the eggs could be fertilized.
“We’re making life here,” Walter said.
The eggs were rinsed with iodine solution, then set aside for one hour to give enough time for fertilization. After the timer went off, the eggs were placed in coolers and the times were documented.
“Al (Seale) needs to know the exact time the eggs were bagged up until they arrive in town,” KRAA employee Dusty Lindberg said. Seale is the hatchery’s manager.
The process for the egg takes is the same every year, but the dynamics change slightly as experienced egg take workers try different stations.
KRAA worker Tabitha Fischer, a four-year egg take participant, was at the fertilization stage for the first time. Fish by fish, she squeezed milt from male fish into bowls of eggs, then tossed the used carcass into a pile.
“It was fun getting personal with the fish,” Fischer said jokingly. “I did hundreds of pounds of work.”
The two piles of discarded fish, separated by sexes, grew as the morning wore on. The smell of dead fish attracted bugs, but the group didn’t have to use the “b-word” as there were no bear sightings.
Without music, conversation was about people’s backgrounds and the usual fish jokes.
KRAA workers living on Afognak Lake for the summer were curious about events in town and what they’d been missing — like Kodiak’s introduction to the world of hip hop with Pitbull’s appearance last week.
The egg take process started in the morning and lasted until midday, when workers hit their goal — 225 bowls. Each bowl contained around 2,500 eggs, meaning more than 500,000 were fertilized.
As soon as the last bowl made it through the assembly line, Walter raised his arms in triumph and declared a lunch. The team celebrated with a shoreside lunch, and after breaking down the equipment, ended the day with a four-layer birthday cake that was brought for one of the team members.
Experienced egg takers and new ones alike expressed similar feelings at the end of the process, and all said they would do it again.
“I feel accomplished,” KRAA worker Lisa Munhoven said. “That was so much fun.”
The nine coolers of eggs were the first things carefully loaded onto the returning flights. Even a small bump could kill hundreds of eggs. “They’re protected and can take a little jostling, but not much,” Walter said. “In the first 24 hours they’re easier to transport.”
As soon as the eggs made it back to Kodiak, they were taken to the Pillar Creek Hatchery where they were placed in incubators until they grow into fry and are ready to be transported to rivers and lakes on Kodiak Island.