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Crooked Creek Hatchery: Lessons Learned After 50 Years

Crooked Creek Hatchery bridged the twin eras of hatchery management by the state and private nonprofits. Read our summary of a new report.

by | May 12, 2022

The outdoor incubators at Crooked Creek Hatchery were designed to withstand insulating snow loads. The facility produced king, coho, sockeye, and pink salmon fry despite -40 F air temperatures. Courtesy of Brent Johnson

Crooked Creek Hatchery, near Cohoe, was part of a state salmon enhancement program that started 50 years ago. The state opened Crooked Creek in 1974. The hatchery was one of ten operated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). The state built these hatcheries in response to a salmon fishery crash that devastated local economies across coastal Alaska.

Brent Johnson, former Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) board president and resident historian put together a detailed account of the impact Crooked Creek Hatchery has had on Alaska salmon aquaculture. Here are some highlights from his report.

Crooked Creek Was Part of a Family of Hatcheries

At the time of the early 70s salmon fishery crisis, there were five state salmon hatcheries operating in Alaska: 

  • Auke Bay near Juneau
  • Deer Mountain north of Metlakatla
  • Fire Lake near Chugiak
  • Kitoi Bay on Afognak Island north of Kodiak
  • Little Port Walter south of Sitka

In 1974, the newly-formed ADF&G Division of Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement and Development established Crooked Creek Hatchery along with four others. This brought the total number of hatcheries to 10.

Sockeye Gets Short Shrift

When Crooked Creek Hatchery opened, it was the only sockeye salmon hatchery in the state, and it only incubated 290,000 eggs — or around 1% of eggs taken that year in Alaska. In 1980, hatcheries favored pink and chum salmon. While all salmon must incubate in fresh water, pink and chum fry can directly enter salt water once they hatch. Pinks are also the fastest-maturing of the five Pacific salmon species with a life cycle of two years. 

Meanwhile, hatcheries can release coho and king salmon fry into creeks and rivers. Sockeye fry need a year or two in lakes before they migrate to sea. It’s a lot harder to find suitable lakes for sockeye than it is to find creeks and rivers for cohos and kings. 

While sockeye salmon are a valuable part of commercial fishing in the Cook Inlet region, salmon hatcheries did not embrace the species until very recently.

Before Crooked Creek: Hatchery Fits and Starts

By the time Crooked Creek opened in 1974, salmon hatcheries were nothing new to Alaska. However, these operations were historically plagued with problems.

In 1891, a private company built the first hatchery in Alaska on Kodiak Island’s Karluk River. Its founders lacked unity, and the enterprise failed in its first year. The Alaska Packers Association built another hatchery at Karluck that operated from 1896 to 1915. It released sockeye fry directly into salt water, which sockeye at that stage of life cannot tolerate. “It’s reasonable to assume that not a single adult ever returned from the efforts of this operation,” writes Johnson.

A federal hatchery at Yes Bay near Ketchikan suffered constant freezing and flooding. A second federal hatchery at Afognak Lake near Kodiak operated from 1907 to 1932, but it was blanketed by volcanic ash in 1912. The Afognak runs rebounded dramatically from 1917 to 1922 after receiving 15 million sockeye eggs from Yes Bay.

Throughout the early 20th century, canneries built hatcheries, joined by the Territory of Alaska. Sockeye fry from the Cordova hatchery were shipped to Surprise Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. The hatchery released the fry into a freshwater stream. However, since there is no lake connected to that stream, “the site selection was probably a surprise to the fish,” writes Johnson.

Grouse Creek Hatchery, the first Territorial hatchery on the Kenai Peninsula, could incubate five million king salmon eggs. Unfortunately, there were no king salmon in Resurrection Bay to use as brood stock. No adult kings resulted from this effort. The hatchery burned down in 1927, destroying three million sockeye eggs and 60,000 pink salmon eggs.

Hatcheries Are One Part of the Equation

Through laws passed in 1974 and 1976, the Alaska Legislature authorized non-profit regional aquaculture associations to receive commercial fishing taxes to support hatchery operations. Additionally, these laws enable those associations to extend contracts to processors to participate in cost recovery fisheries.

While hatcheries have helped stabilized Alaska salmon fisheries, five other factors have also contributed to the industry’s success:

  1. ADF&G spawning escapement goals seed streams for maximum yield. Through regulations enacted in 1960, this grants power to fisheries managers to open and close fisheries to meet these goals.
  2. Sonar counting equipment, used on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers since 1968, can monitor salmon escapement on glacial streams.
  3. Limited entry through licensing, enacted in 1973, limits the number of commercial fishermen on the waters, creating more predictable harvests.
  4. The Magnuson Act, in 1974, restricts salmon fishing by foreign fleets to 200 miles off shore, allowing adult salmon in the open ocean to mature without human interference.
  5. The United Nations Driftnet Ban, phased in beginning in 1990, extends protections offered by the Magnuson Act to international waters, preventing other countries from overharvesting adult salmon.

The Closure of Crooked Creek

CIAA began operating the state-owned Trail Lake Hatchery in 1988 and Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery in 1991. When the state closed its hatchery at Big Lake in 1993, CIAA took over those sockeye projects at its Eklutna Hatchery. At the same time, CIAA also took over Crooked Creek Hatchery.

In the late nineties, a flood of farm salmon on the world market caused Alaska wild salmon prices to crash. CIAA felt financial strain of low salmon prices from operating three state-owned hatcheries. The association returned Crooked Creek to the state in 1996, at which time the hatchery closed. Meanwhile, CIAA began handling its sockeye stocking in Tustumena Lake, Lower Cook Inlet, and Resurrection through its other hatcheries.

Lessons Learned

The contemporary salmon hatchery program in Alaska is straightforward when we compare it to the early, wild days of hatcheries. Furthermore, fisheries managers and hatchery operators have learned best practices to ensure the goal of enhancing salmon fisheries is successful, while continuing to protect wild stocks. The Crooked Creek Hatchery played an important role in establishing valuable runs and informing future hatchery decisions. 

Go Deeper

See Brent Johnson’s full report on the history of Crooked Creek Hatchery.

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