The hatchery program at the Sitka Sound Science Center is getting a helping hand from the Pacific Salmon Commission.

The center has been awarded $130,000 in grant funding to improve the hatchery’s water intake system, which was originally built around the turn of the 20th century to float logs to the sawmill at the Sheldon Jackson Training School.
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On the river.
The wooden flume is long since gone, replaced thirty years ago by a 48-inch pipe, but the Indian River still looks untamed here on the north side of the Sawmill Creek Highway. Strictly speaking, a river this centrally-located in Sitka might be called an urban waterway, but Nature did not get the memo.

Lon Garrison – Even this river will shift around a lot. You’ll get a big flood, and the gravel bar on the inside of this bow can move around. And if the river cuts through these trees, here on the upstream side, all of the sudden a lot of water can come over here and flows can be completely changed. One thing about rivers: They’re alive. They move all over the place.

Lon Garrison used to run hatchery operations for the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, and now works for the Sitka Sound Science Center.

We’re standing at place on the river where water historically has been diverted to the Sheldon Jackson Campus, first in that old wooden flume that carried logs to a sawmill, and later in a penstock to an electrical turbine.

Now there’s also a twelve-inch pipe here, built to supply Sheldon Jackson’s hatchery, which has been taken over by the Science Center. When it was a college program, this hatchery trained many people who continue to work in aquaculture around the state. You’d think the setup would be near-perfect. In fact, Garrison says it’s far from ideal.

The problem is this wild river.

“And a river is generally not a great water source for a hatchery. Because of a couple of things. It has a lot of debris in it, it’s carrying bedload all the time. Certainly in August and September, October, November, it’s got a lot of fish in it – salmon – and we’ll have carcasses. We’ll end up with really high loads of bacteria in the water, and it makes it very difficult for us at the hatchery.”

“Difficult” is putting it nicely. The hatchery’s water supply was cut off four times last fall when the intake clogged. Backup pumps saved the incubating eggs, but Garrison says there were many sleepless nights.

The hatchery rears 3-million pink salmon and 1-million coho eggs. It currently has 20,000 coho smolt nearing release, along with 100,000 chinook. Garrison says they’re phasing out chinook to concentrate on coho, which cost less to rear, and return sooner.

Despite the temperamental nature of rivers, Garrison says they’re used by hatcheries all over the world. He thinks the Science Center’s problems can be solved by a modern device installed in this historic intake.

Garrison – They call it a rotating, self-cleaning, mechanical screen. It’s like a porous conveyor belt, and it just keeps rotating. It’s got a spray bar on one side, and it washes it off, and the debris goes back into the river.
KCAW – Is it water-powered?
Garrison – No, it’s electrically-powered. That’s one of the drawbacks. But as I look at this system right here at the river, last fall we saw this flood several times, where the water was a foot to two-feet over these concrete walls. So now you go, How do we plan for that? It’s a massive amount of water. This thing can just be roaring.

Garrison anticipates that just over half the grant will be spent on buying the screening equipment itself, the rest on a local contractor to install it, and make other upgrades to the intake itself. The trash weir needs to be reinforced, and the whole thing needs to be covered with a safety grate. He’s surprised that no adventurous youth – or unlucky cat – has taken a ride down the penstock pipe.

The main thing though – and the reason the Pacific Salmon Commission is involved – is saving fish. The hazards of losing this water supply are all too real.

“It happened two years ago. The water quit. All of the fish that they had in the tanks and the incubators died, and so you had nothing to release the next year. A huge loss.”

The amount of that loss is hard to calculate accurately. It depends on ocean survival rates, and the price of fish. The commercial fleet catches about half of Sitka’s hatchery returns; sports anglers intercept many as well. Does the potential loss exceed the $130,000 cash investment plus matching funds from the Science Center? “Oh yes,” says Garrison. “Absolutely.”