Although located in a village, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s hatchery at Port Graham is the most remote of CIAA’s three operating hatcheries. Port Graham Hatchery is near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, off the road system and far from urban areas. Port Graham is focused on pink salmon with roots going back to 1992.
Port Graham can rear 84 million eggs based on water availability. Crews raise the eggs to the fry stage and then move them to net pens in front of the hatchery. After a few weeks of rearing, the fry are released to the ocean. In the fall, the adult pink salmon return from the previous year’s release.
An Overview of Port Graham and Its Hatchery
Port Graham’s Alaska Native name is Paluwik. You get there by flying 28 miles from Homer or taking a boat. Port Graham Bay gives residents the most beautiful southern-facing views year round.
Port Graham’s nearest neighbor is Nanwalek—a village about three and a half miles away along a foot trail. Both communities are Alutiiq, and their Alaska Native residents call themselves Sugpiaq, meaning “real people.” In 2022, the state estimated that 150 people lived in Port Graham.
Port Graham was a seasonal settlement before the 1880s. The Fidalgo Island Packing Company built the village’s first dock and fish processing plant in 1912, establishing the permanent community as people arrived to work at the cannery. Meanwhile, the traditional subsistence lifestyle has continued.
In 1992, the non-profit Port Graham Hatchery Corporation (PGHC) built the hatchery to provide a more reliable supply of salmon for the cannery. The hatchery also supplemented natural sockeye salmon runs into the English Bay lakes system near Nanwalek, for the benefit of the local subsistence and commercial fisheries. In 1997, the hatchery burned down and was rebuilt, along with the cannery, in one modern common building.
CIAA Purchases the Port Graham Hatchery
In 2007, PGHC closed the hatchery due to low returns of pink salmon and poor prices. In 2010, PGHC approached CIAA about taking over the hatchery and its operations. Around the same time, CIAA collaborated with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to work on sockeye salmon fisheries enhancement for Nanwalek using eggs hatched at CIAA’s Trail Lakes Hatchery. This project has since been discontinued.
After buying the hatchery, CIAA spent nearly two years securing permits and making plans. In April 2014, CIAA assumed ownership. The physical plant had suffered damage while shut down, and CIAA made repairs and improvements for the pink salmon hatchery operations. Repairs included rebuilding the water distribution system, installing new boilers and heat exchangers, building new sumps and pumps for water reuse, updating light fixtures, fixing code violations, and installing new alarms and control panels.
Permitted for 125 million pink salmon, CIAA headed into 2015 with the facility upgraded and a goal of rearing up to 84 million green eggs.
Many hatcheries use a fish ladder to collect returning salmon, but there is not enough water available at Port Graham to use a ladder. Port Graham Hatchery staff capture the broodstock with the assistance of salmon seiners who deposit fish into net pens just offshore. Staff then collect the eggs on the net pens. Saltwater egg takes are not common in Alaska salmon aquaculture.
After the staff collects the eggs and milt, they place the fertilized eggs in the hatchery for incubation over the winter. In the spring, the resulting fry are transferred back to the net pens via a pipeline from the hatchery. Our staff rear the fish over four to six weeks, before opening the nets and releasing the fry to the ocean. The pink salmon return as adults the following year, ready for harvest and to be the brood source for the next generation.
Living and working in Port Graham
CIAA also rebuilt an old, dilapidated, building to make it into staff housing. By 2016, we finished a two-story triplex that sits just up the road from the hatchery. Staff living in the triplex have a three-minute walk to work. They also have one of the most amazing views of Port Graham Bay with their homes sitting right along the shoreline.
Being located in Port Graham comes with some other advantages. Hatchery staff live remotely, but they have access to a school, two small grocery stores, and a medical clinic. Flights, including mail delivery, are on a regular schedule (weather permitting).
As much as possible, CIAA hires hatchery staff from the village, providing the hatchery with valuable help and the community with jobs. The staff work with the local school, providing exposure to science outside of a lab environment, and helping build a good relationship with the community.
CIAA is making progress toward meeting the hatchery’s goals. Improving broodstock collection, egg take, incubation, and fish culture techniques as well as site and equipment upgrades have allowed hatchery staff to adapt to site-specific obstacles.