FAIRBANKS -- The Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery is alive and breathing -- finally.
After a nearly three-year wait because of politics, construction delays and problems with a state-of-the-art water filtration system, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game moved the first fish -- 24,000 cute little Arctic char eggs -- into the new hatchery on Wilbur Street late last week.
"I think everybody is pretty excited to be moving on to the next phase," hatchery manager Gary George said. "It's definitely nice to get fish into the facility."
It's taken awhile. The hatchery was originally scheduled to open in the summer of 2009, and the first fish produced in the hatchery were supposed to be released in the spring of 2010.
In addition to the delays, the cost of the hatchery doubled from the original cost estimate, from approximately $25 million to the most recent estimate of $47.9 million, though that number is expected to increase as a result of changes made to the filtration system.
It took several months of experimenting with and overhauling the filtration system to get it to the point where it was removing the proper amount of iron and manganese for growing fish.
The hatchery is still not officially open -- contractors are still taking care of some odds and ends with the building, and George said they are still waiting on some more parts to arrive to finish things off -- but the water is finally flowing and fish are finally growing.
"We're real comfortable with the performance of the water filtration system," George said. "It's been working rock solid since early October."
On Wednesday morning, George and assistant hatchery manager Travis Hyer gave the News-Miner a glimpse of the hatchery's first crop of fish.
After stomping their rubber boots in a disinfectant foot bath to ensure they were not carrying any harmful bacteria, George and Hyer cracked open the door to the incubation room at the Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery on Wednesday.
The two men ducked in as quickly as they could, like a parent sneaking into their sleeping child's room at night. Once inside, they pulled the door shut, trying to avoid letting in light.
The room was illuminated by only two red fluorescent lights, which cast an eerie glow over the six incubation chambers in the room. Each chamber held 32 sliding trays, stacked in four rows of eight trays each.
George pulled out one of the trays and carefully peeled a cover off to reveal approximately 3,400 fertilized Arctic char eggs. They were slightly smaller than a pea and slightly larger than a BB. Even in the dim light, a tiny black eye was evident in each one.
"If you hit them with a bunch of bright light they start moving around a little bit and their energy reserves go to movement instead of growth," Hyer, a fish culturist, said, explaining the red lights. "You can see those eyes rolling around in their head; you want to avoid that."
The whole idea is "to try to replicate the environment they would be living in under gravel," Hyer said.
The eggs will probably "hatch out" next week but they will still have yolk sacs attached to their bodies, which serve as a food source for the newly hatched fish.
"They'll stay in the tray until the yolk sac is absorbed," Hyer said.
That will take three to four weeks, at which time they will be transferred to a plastic 10-foot tank on the main floor of the hatchery. They'll remain there until they're released in local lakes and ponds in the fall of 2013 as 8- to 10-inch fish called "catchables" because they are big enough to be caught and eaten.
In coming weeks, the department will be moving approximately 20,000 chinook salmon fingerling (2 to 3 inches) and 70,000 coho salmon fingerling into the hatchery. The coho will be ready to be released as catchable-sized fish in local lakes and ponds in June while the chinook will be released as catchables in the fall of this year.