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Paint River Fish Ladder: Looking back and forward

CIAA special projects manager looks back at one of her favorite habitat projects, which gives salmon access to their natal streams.

by | July 11, 2023

Paint River Fish Ladder seen from above.
A view of the Paint River outlet falls, the fish ladder, the cabin, and Akjemguiga Cove. Paul Roth

When I first stepped onto the beach at the outlet of Paint River, I knew it was a special place. The salt water in Akjemguiga Cove, on the western shore of Kamishak Bay, is crystal clear, exposing the numerous rocks that have to be dodged by float planes and boats, even when the tide is high.

It is a short hike up the bluff to the Paint River Fish Ladder, which sits atop a 40-foot waterfall. The landscape is full of brush and when the weather is clear, you can see for miles.

The Paint River system stretches toward the Alaska Peninsula. I don’t know the origins of the river’s name, but can only imagine that someone was taken with the colorful rocks dotting the river bed in the clear fresh water. 

My first visit to Paint River was in July 2013, which was also my first year working at Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA). I knew little about the fish ladder at that time but I quickly came up to speed on all of it—the ladder and its history, the area, and its possibilities for providing salmon fisheries.

Paint River potential

The Paint River system consists of over 25 miles of river habitat and over 400 acres of lake habitat. But it did not historically have a self-sustaining run of salmon because of a 40-foot waterfall at the mouth that prevented salmon from reaching the system. 

In the late 1970s, ADF&G and CIAA completed feasibility studies to determine if the Paint River system had salmon production potential. The results showed the system to have significant salmon production potential. 

The task of realizing that potential became known as the Paint River Salmon Enhancement Project and had two broad components:

  1. Developing a means of overcoming the salmon migration barrier posed by the waterfall
  2. Developing the salmon runs the system would eventually host

Operating the Paint River Fish Ladder

In 1991, CIAA completed construction of a fish ladder to circumvent the falls at the mouth of Paint River. The ladder is a maze of concrete channels that allow salmon to swim around the waterfall and spawn upstream.

Final completion of the ladder and development of salmon runs were halted when the State of Alaska began to shed many of its hatchery programs. At the time CIAA redirected its financial resources to operate and maintain State hatcheries including Trail Lakes and Tutka Bay Lagoon. 

By 2011, CIAA was able to complete and open the ladder. We open it in June by removing stop logs to let water flow through the fish ladder and allow salmon to pass into the Paint River system. Then we put the stop logs back at the end of the season in September to close and dewater the ladder.

How the Paint River Fish Ladder helps salmon return home

Since opening the ladder, we have performed two releases of pink salmon fry in the Paint River system in an attempt to jumpstart salmon colonization. Having seen poor returns from these releases, in 2018 the CIAA Board of Directors decided to stop any further pink releases. And by then there was evidence that salmon were starting to naturally colonize the system. 

We know salmon naturally stray. The ability of salmon to seek out new habitat, especially when outside forces prevent them from returning to their natal streams, keeps salmon from becoming extinct. In 2014 we documented the first known passage of a coho salmon through the ladder.

Additionally, ADF&G and CIAA staff have seen hundreds of salmon in the Paint River system during aerial surveys during the years after opening the ladder in 2011.

Video counting isn’t enough

The Paint River video weir records fish as they pass through to Paint River.
The Paint River video weir records fish as they pass through to Paint River. Staff are
able to count, identify, and even measure the fish. CIAA

In 2016, we installed a video weir to help identify and count salmon passing through the ladder. Documenting fish passage is key to demonstrating sufficient salmon escapement to open up fisheries. Due to the remoteness and difficulty of accessing the site even on a good-weather day, relying solely on the video weir has been problematic for collecting consistent data. 

The original 1991 plan for the ladder included the building of a cabin at the site. We built the cabin in 2019 to support an on-the-ground salmon counting crew who can troubleshoot any issues real time with the video weir and be the backup for counting and identification. 

From 2020 to 2022, we had a crew seasonally stationed at the cabin. They counted a lot of coho salmon, as well as smaller amounts of chums and pinks and one solitary sockeye passing through the ladder into Paint River. 

This year, we don’t have an on-the-ground crew due to our limited budget. So far the weather and tide constraints have hampered our ability to install the video weir, only highlighting the importance of having an on-the-ground crew when the budget allows for it.

The future at Paint River

Paint River provides an exceptional research model to explore the introduction of salmon to a pristine watershed uninfluenced by development. Salmon introduction to a system historically not possessing food webs or nutrient inputs consistent with anadromous salmon opens up many research opportunities. We would support the use of the site and facilities for special research, as our permit will allow. 

After ten years at CIAA, the Paint River Fish Ladder is still my favorite project to share with the public. It may one day soon be the reason why there is another sustainable salmon fishery in Cook Inlet. 

Get the numbers

Learn more about the Paint River project by reading any number of annual and salmon escapement reports.

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