Like eaglets being pushed from the nest, salmon fry born at the local hatchery get their first taste of freedom this week.
Staff at Douglas Island Pink and Chum (DIPAC) started moving 100 million baby chum salmon out of the hatchery's dark metal incubators and into ocean pens last weekend.
Each fish is only a third of a gram and little more than an inch long. They spend a day in long cement pools called raceways outside the hatchery, then go by boat or truck to one of five rearing locations set up around Juneau.
They'll be raised in ocean nets -- three million to a net -- for up to three months. Come May, they'll be released into the wide, deep sea.
But they'll be back.
Right now, it takes more than a thousand fry to make a pound. Later on, when the chum return in four years or so and find the nets of commercial fishermen, they'll fetch about 50 cents a pound at market.
DIPAC is a nonprofit hatchery formed in 1976 to address depleting fish resources. The operation is finally reaching its potential, Executive Director Eric Prestegard said.
In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, the hatchery contributed 15.8 million pounds of salmon to the commercial fishery worth a record $9.9 million.
"These are incredible numbers for us," Prestegard said. "We're very proud, very pleased. This is what was envisioned back when we first put this together, to be able to achieve this kind of economic impact."
Hatchery fish support three-quarters of the local district gillnet fleet's salmon harvest income. The chum run has become so good that it draws fishermen from all over the region to Juneau to catch them in July, when four or five tenders sometimes anchor near the Douglas Bridge.
Prestegard cast part of the success to luck -- good weather and ocean conditions.
But a change in the rearing process also helped.
About four years ago, the staff decided to keep fry in the net pens for an additional two weeks, doubling the survival rate.
The additional fish are selling at higher prices, up to 50 cents a pound from 15 cents five years ago.
Locals accustomed to eating the white flesh of a freshly caught Chinook might balk at chum for dinner, but the world market for it has grown with increasing demand from China.
Chum are filleted, frozen and packed for sale in Europe, Asia and the U.S. There's also a market for the roe in Japan, where DIPAC salmon eggs are a name brand.
Hatchery fish also generate an average $19.4 million a year for the region's seafood processors, according to a McDowell Group report published last year.
The hatchery itself employs more than 40 people but its fish help provide up to 650 jobs in the region and $25 million a year in labor income, the report found.
The economic impacts are largely hidden in Juneau, gillnet fisherman Chris Knight said.
"The City and Borough of Juneau is almost oblivious to the number of boats that come here, the numbers in raw fish taxes that end up in city coffers, all primarily based from the fish hatchery," said Knight, who is president of the hatchery's board.
The commercial gillnet season is still months away. In the meantime, hatchery staff for the next three weeks will move six million fry a day until they are all moved out.
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