Monday was the first egg-take of the season for the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association. A group of volunteers and KRAA staff made the trek to Afognak Lake where they spent the day harvesting and fertilizing sockeye salmon eggs.
Afognak Lake is about 20 minutes by air from Trident Basin, on Near Island. It takes two flights to bring the full crew of volunteers and KRAA staff out to the egg-take site. As the floatplane descends onto the water, small net pens become visible along the shoreline. They hold the brood stock – or parent stock – of sockeye salmon that will be used for the day’s egg take.
KRAA staff and volunteers ready the sockeye salmon in the net pens during Monday’s egg-take on Afognak Lake. The left pens hold hens, or females, and the right ones hold bucks, or males. Brianna Gibbs/KMXT
The pens were built by KRAA crews that have been camping out on the lake for about ten days, getting things ready for Monday’s harvest.
“The first day is spent ferrying our gear and everything over to the island and building our camp. And then the next day we come back over here and build our pen frames, put the nets on them and we go over to the creek and start dragging our seine through the water to catch fish.”
That’s Drew Walter, the assistant manager for the Pillar Creek Hatchery. If you think of Monday’s egg-take like a factory, Walter would be the operations supervisor – the guy making sure everything is working right and going according to plan.
The egg-take itself works like an assembly line, but comes with higher stakes – such as the quality of future fish runs – if any part of the process slips up.
Here’s how it works:
The fish start in the pen, where they’re separated by gender. The hens, females, are in one pen and the bucks, males, are in another. KRAA staff stand hip-deep in each, collecting fish one at a time. For the hens, they fill if the bellies are soft, which means the eggs are ready to harvest.
Green means the bellies are hard, and the fish won’t be used for the egg-take.
When they find a soft one, they kill the fish by breaking its neck backward so the belly is preserved and it is quickly immobilized.
In the male pen, bucks face a slightly different kill method.
Quick whacks to the head. Both deaths sound violent, but they are quick and effective means to kill the fish so they can be easily used in the next step – harvest.
After they’re killed, the fish are walked out of the water by the “runners.” Everything in the egg take process is kept as disinfected and clean as possible, so only one or two people are allowed to go back and forth from the collection tent to the water. Everyone inside the tent, where the eggs are collected, must be sterilized with betadine.
In fact, before entering the tent, even the fish themselves are dunked into a betadine bin to clean.
Once inside, the bellies of the hens are slit open, revealing the bright reddish orange eggs. Those are placed in a plastic bowl and passed to the next step.
A volunteer squeezes milt out of a buck into a bowl of eggs during Monday’s egg-take on Afognak Lake. Brianna Gibbs/Photo
Two bucks can fertilize three bowls-worth of eggs, or three hens. A volunteer gently slides his hand down the belly of each buck, releasing the milt from the male into the bowl of eggs.
He passes the bowls on to the fertilizer, a volunteer who adds a small amount of water to each bowl. She swirls her finger in the mixture until a white foam appears, which means the fertilization process is working. From there, she lets the eggs sit for 30 seconds – the life span of the milt – and passed the eggs on to be sanitized.
Each bowl is flushed with betadine three times, then set on a rack to sit for about an hour. Once ready, the eggs are placed in the coolers that will transport them to the Pillar Creek Hatchery, where they will be incubated over the winter.
It’s a relatively quick process, but when you multiply it by about 267 fish – which was the number of hens used during Monday’s egg-take, it adds up. Walter estimates about 600,000 eggs were taken on Monday and flown back to the hatchery.
“And when they hatch and come out of the incubators we will rear them for a short period of time before we stock them as fed-fry into Hidden Lake, Crescent Lake, Big Waterfall Lake and Little Waterfall Lake, all on Afognak Island, except for Crescent Lake which is right above Port Lions.”
KRAA is gearing up for a series of egg takes in the coming weeks and Monday was just the start.
“On Friday of this week we will be doing our Chinook egg take at the Monashka reservoir. And that’s to supply Chinook salmon for the road system stocking. And then probably about the 20th of September my crew will head out to Saltery Lake and we’ll spend about 30 days there.”
Fish eggs sit for one hour before they are placed in the coolers to be transported back to the Pillar Creek Hatchery. Brianna Gibbs/Photo
Walter said that is the late run egg-take and will involve a week of seining, a week of letting the fish ripen up and then two egg-takes over the course of two weeks. He said the goal there will be to pull a little more than $3 million eggs.