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Kirschner Lake: A terminal fishery for sockeye salmon

Salmon hatcheries create a terminal fishery when they imprint eggs for an inaccessible location, like a waterfall.

by | April 27, 2023

Sockeye salmon smolt leave Kirschner Lake via this waterfall leading to the ocean. ShoreZone

Kirschner Lake sits on the north coast of Kamishak Bay, just north of Bruin Bay and west of Augustine Island in the Cook Inlet Watershed. The coastline is made up of steep cliffs, which means water sources are generally separated from the ocean by a waterfall. 

We have provided sockeye salmon releases to Kirshner Lake  since 1994, relieving the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who began the program in 1987. The current brood source is sockeye salmon returning to Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery; however, many different stocks have been used between 1987 and now. 

The eggs harvested from Tutka Bay brood are transported to Trail Lakes Hatchery where they are incubated overwinter and grow into fry. In the spring, using a float plane, the fry are flown over Cook Inlet and released into Kirschner Lake.

A typical day at Kirschner Lake. Trenton Schipper, CIAA.

Terminal fishery: An aquaculture tool

The Kirschner Lake project is defined as a “terminal fishery,” meaning these fish are imprinted and released from a location they cannot successfully return to and spawn. 

The Kirschner Lake sockeye salmon cannot enter freshwater to spawn due to a waterfall blocking their path. As a result, they congregate in large schools in the saltwater coming from the waterfall, making them an easy target for commercial fishermen to harvest ocean sockeye. This approach also eliminates the possibility of introducing hatchery genetics into wild fish populations.

View of Kirschner Lake from atop the nearby mountains. Trenton Schipper, CIAA

How fishermen benefit from terminal fisheries

A terminal fishery at Kirschner Lake is a win-win for aquaculture and fisheries because it provides an ideal location and lacks predatory fish that could harm the growth of juvenile salmon.

CIAA takes care of more than just its primary fishery; it also manages Hazel Lake and Leisure Lake (also known as China Poot Lake) in Kachemak Bay State Park. These fisheries work on the same principle of releasing fry that grow into smolt and eventually move to the ocean.

Once these fish become adults, they can’t find their way back to where they were born. This makes them easy targets for fishing methods. However, these fish are still an important resource for the beloved China Poot personal use fishery and other types of fishing communities.

 Kirschner lake smolt weir in the outflow on the way to the ocean.  Trenton Schipper/CIAA

Freshwater success 

Our annual goal is to release around 250,000 sockeye fry into Kirschner Lake. For three years (2019 to 2021), our fisheries technicians counted smolt leaving the lake, and headed out to the saltwater by going straight over the waterfall.

We installed and used a smolt weir in the creek leading to the waterfall to accomplish this. By counting the out-migrating smolt we determined a high rate of success for the fish making it from fry to smolt. 

We also took limnology samples and measurements during this project. In the case of the Kirschner Lake salmon, the lake itself is being used as a tool for growing salmon. By conducting limnology, we can determine the productive potential of the system. 

The challenges of smolt counting

Our efforts to count smolt at Kirschner Lake is affected by environmental conditions. Kamishak Bay is notorious for high winds, which means float plane access is always up in the air.

Water levels of the Kirschner Lake drainage can change rapidly depending on rain and spring snow melt. Multiple years of the smolt counting project have seen weirs overwhelmed with water flow, preventing the ability to count smolt for days at a time. However, with all the challenges Kirschner Lake may throw at you, it is undeniable that it is a special place.

Find the release data

As Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association begins its annual spring releases, we post the release numbers to our website. You can follow along to learn the numbers, as well as the species, life stage, and size.

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