From eggs to smolt: Release of king salmon raised at Anchorage hatchery marks next phase of life cycle

More than half a million king salmon smolt have been released as anglers catch the tides and hook mature returning chinooks, who got their start in life a few years ago at the Ship Creek hatchery.

Early on a recent Wednesday morning, anglers in Anchorage lined Ship Creek and cast lines to catch returning chinook salmon.

Just minutes after 6 a.m., shouts of “fish on!” fluttered across the shore.

“Uncle! Uncle!” Marvin Richards yelled to Harold Richards. The top of his rod was bouncing as it rested in a holder.

Harold Richards grabbed the rod, moved it sharply up and to his right and hooked a salmon. His nephew grabbed a net and ran to the shore to help guide the chinook in.

With a grin that spanned the width of his face, Richards placed the fish in the grass and set the line again next to his nephew.

Similar scenes unfolded throughout the morning thanks in part to an ongoing effort from staff at the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery, where each year they raise the next salmon that will mature in the wild and return to Ship Creek in three to five years.

There, Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish culturists have raised the newest group of king salmon, which started as eggs last July and grew into smolt this spring. It’s part of an endeavor that’s been happening at the Anchorage hatchery for years.

It all begins with the yearly eggtake from chinooks returning to Ship Creek, a uniquely urban waterway that partially flows along the edge of downtown Anchorage. After the eggs are fertilized, they’re loaded into incubators surrounded by warm lights that mimic the color of the tens of thousands of orange eggs.

For months, it was up to fish culturists Scott Cunfer and Tim VanGelderen to keep these eggs alive and ensure their growth into fry. Long nights, daily checks and frequent cleanings are just a portion of the list when it comes to this job.

“I’ve just always enjoyed watching animals grow,” said Cunfer, who grew up around farm animals. “It’s just enjoyable to watch these fish get bigger and bigger … and to see it all happen in front of your eyes at such a quick pace.”

By mid-January, the fish weighed about 3 grams and were transferred to the production floor, Cunfer said. From there, fish culturists Cody Block and Greg Carpenter took over. Continued months of monitoring, disease control and cleaning took place as the salmon grew.

“You worry about it all the time,” Carpenter said about the health of the fish during their time at the hatchery.

Earlier this month, the salmon were transferred to outdoor raceways that contained Ship Creek water. The fish imprint on this water, ensuring their eventual return, for about five days before being released.

Staff then released the 580,000 chinook salmon smolt into the creek.

Kids, teenagers and adults watched the release as harlequin ducks swam to the edge of the fish ladder, hoping to catch an afternoon snack.

“We’re putting these fish out there in order to give (people) a good opportunity … to enjoy this culture, heritage of fishing,” Cunfer said.

In the next six weeks, fish culturists will transfer 3.2 million fish out of the hatchery and into Alaska’s water sources, Carpenter said.

Just a few miles downstream from the hatchery, anglers have been gathering along the waterway in downtown Anchorage to catch returning adult salmon who left the hatchery as smolt years ago.

Marvin Richards, who has been fishing most of his life, said it was his uncle Harold who got him into the activity.

They and cousin Mary Walker, all originally from Holy Cross, spent the morning watching the water intently and waiting for their next bite.

“That’s good eatin’,” Owen Brooks said after he helped Robert Rozelle bring in a king a couple hundred feet down the shore.

A 20-pound chinook caught by George Elgarico was that morning’s showstopper.

“It’s rewarding to see people actually catch the returning cohos and kings,” Carpenter said. “It’s just a continuous cycle every year.”

Emily Mesner

Emily Mesner is a multimedia journalist for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously worked for the National Park Service at Denali National Park and Preserve and the Western Arctic National Parklands in Kotzebue, at the Cordova Times and at the Jackson Citizen Patriot in Jackson, Michigan.