KODIAK -- There's a new sight on Margaret Lake: Bright red buoys bobbing on its waters are part of net pens that will be home to 750,000 sockeye salmon fry until next spring.
"We're calling it the Margaret Lake sockeye overwinter rearing project," said Al Seale, Pillar Creek Hatchery's manager.
The project is a partnership between the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association and the lake's owner, Natives of Kodiak Inc., to generate more salmon for Kodiak Island.
Permits for the project were approved by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The idea for the pens started when Pillar Creek Hatchery employees realized they had more than enough fry to meet state-contracted stocking goals, and they didn't want to have to destroy the extra fish.
"The reason we had inventory over our stocking goals is because of good survival at the hatchery," Seale said. "We had better than expected survivals from egg takes and other projects."
Right now there are two pens in the lake, filled with fry that each weigh around 1 gram -- 3 one hundredths of an ounce. The pens are each made of an aluminum frame, 12 buoys and netting. As the fry get larger, they will be split among two additional pens.
"They have room to grow. We're expecting them to explode with growth," hatchery employee Hawk Turman said.
Turman will make weekly trips out to the lake to do progress updates on the fish.
He'll check the wet weight of the fry and make observations on how healthy they look.
The fish will be fed eight times a day from now until the end of October when the lake freezes up and the fish go dormant. The fish will then survive off fat stores.
Two hatchery workers will camp near the lake for the next two and a half months to make sure the fish are fed and the equipment is safe.
The lake's culvert is sealed to make sure no fry escape into the Buskin River.
In the spring the fish will be taken out of the lake and taken to stocking locations where they will imprint. At that time, the fry will weigh between 10 and 15 grams.
The stocking locations will be decided when the Kodiak Regional Planning Team meets in October. The team is comprised of aquaculture association members and staff from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"The public is invited to the planning meeting in October to give us suggestions on where they would like to see these fish go," Seale said.
It would be cheaper to transport the fish to a lake on the road system, but because of other programs and natural runs, the association may have a hard time finding a place on the road system.
"We have to put them somewhere so when they return, they're not going to cause a problem with wild stocks," Seale said.
The fish aren't expected to return as adults until 2015 at the earliest.
If the pens are successful, Seale is hoping the method can be used around the Kodiak archipelago. The amount of space and water at the Pillar Creek Hatchery limits production; this new method would enable Seale and his team to increase the number of fish across Kodiak Island.
"It's important for people to realize to have more fish we need to experiment with these projects and programs," he said. "By trying to reach out and find these different ways to produce more fish without having fish at the hatchery site, we can figure out how to produce more fish for the Kodiak region."