It’s August on Revillagigedo Island north of Ketchikan, and the salmon are running in Neets Bay Creek. These fish are about to spawn and die. It’s the end of their life cycle, but many other cycles are in evidence here.
When the salmon come, the harbor seals come with them, looking for a meal. The eagles are watching, even if they lack the motivation to hunt right now. The gulls feed voraciously on fish carcasses that litter the stream banks. The carcasses come courtesy of the bears that fish here. With so many fish, the bear population is large and the animals are getting fat. Even the sows and cubs get plenty to eat.
The fishermen are here. Their incentive is profit rather than nourishment. So are the tourists, hungry for an experience of nature that no longer exists in urban America. In the vast wilderness that is Southeast Alaska, every one covets the salmon.
These are wild fish but nature didn’t put them here, at least not in these numbers. This is the Neets Bay Salmon Hatchery, one of four aquaculture facilities operated by the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (SSRAA). It’s a private, non-profit enterprise, conceived and financed by Southeast Alaska commercial fishermen. It exists to supplement Alaska’s natural bounty by putting more fish in the sea for the sake of all who want them.
Like the bears, the hatchery crew is working hard. This is their season to boost salmon reproduction. By extracting roe from the females and milt from the males, the hatchery crew spawns baby salmon in buckets and lugs them to an incubation room that offers a more controlled nursery than the gravels of a stream.
Each incubator holds 180,000 chum salmon eggs, and the summer goal is to produce 106 million fish. After maturing at the hatchery for two months, the juvenile chum salmon are released by the millions to forage in the ocean where they feed on a natural diet of herring and krill, and in turn serve as food for the world’s insatiable appetite for fish.
This is a salmon ranch, not the type of farm that has flooded the world market with salmon raised in pens. Once they’re released. Neets Bay salmon are distinguished from their wild counterparts only by the clipped fins that identify a small percentage of these fish as having spawned in a hatchery.
"There is nothing different between these and wild salmon," says Hatchery Manager Mike Anderson. "This is an ocean ranching facility and we'll release these fish just at 2 grams."
"A fish farm is where you keep the fish for it’s entire life," argues SSRAA General Manager John Burke, "so it’s basically fed food that’s prepared to feed the fish in net pens, it doesn’t swim in the open ocean, it doesn’t avoid predators, it doesn’t interact with the environment, it doesn’t live the way a fish would normally live.
"I think the best comparison would be between a buffalo and a Hereford on a ranch, or even in a feed lot. These fish have been ranched in that classic sense in the old days where they would turn them lose and go find them a year later. That’s what we do with these, we let them go when they’re about the size of your finger and we go find them 3 years later when they come back to spawn."
Even the experts, Alaska’s commercial fishermen, acknowledge that once they reach the ocean, there is no difference between Neets Bay salmon and their wild cousins.
Lifelong Alaska fisherman Maurice Ingman: "I can't tell the difference. I like king salmon and I eat alot of it and as far as a Neets Bay hatchery fish is concerned, there is no difference in the fish, he's turned loose and he's got to live with the wild fish and compete with them to live...when they're turned loose, they're on their own."
Neets Bay: An Alaska Salmon Ranch is a half-hour, broadcast quality documentary that tells the story of this remarkable facility and of the combination of modern scientific fishery management and strategically-sited fish hatcheries that has restored the Alaska salmon resource to historic levels of abundance. Filmed entirely on location in Alaska and Washington, it's a fascinating look at resource management success. DVD-Video