Spawning a better run

Crooked Creek facility’s work is fit for kings

Posted: Sunday, July 30, 2006


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  Fisheries biologist Jeff Breakfield sorts king salmon near holding tanks at the Kasilof hatchery. Eggs from three female fish are mixed with the milt of three male fish in a bucket and then packaged in bags for shipment. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Ryan Dukowitz (top) and Sean Boyer manhandle a feisty king salmon into a net from the confines of a holding tank at the Kasilof hatchery on Crooked Creek.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

It doesn’t matter if you’re a local angler on a weekend excursion catching meat to fill the freezer or a tourist from Outside on that once-in-a-lifetime adventure, if you’ve caught an early-run king salmon on the Kasilof River in the last 20 years, you owe Jeff Breakfield a cup of coffee.

Why? Because without Breakfield there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have caught that king, and maybe wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fish for them as much, if at all.

Breakfield is a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Sport Fish Division and he oversees the chinook enhancement and research program at the Crooked Creek facility on Johnson Lake Road in Kasilof, the one-time hatchery that now focuses on research and brood stock collection.


Larry Ransom clears eggs from a female king salmon as Jeff Breakfield collects a sample of her eggs for testing. Each fish is tested for traces of disease that could later contaminate the hatchery where the fish will be raised.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“We’ve been doing this since 1974,” said Breakfield in regard to efforts to enhance the early run of king salmon by stocking the tea-colored water of Crooked Creek with hatchery-produced chinook smolt of Crooked Creek origin.

Over the last 30 years, the facility has produced many species of fish, including sockeye, cohoes and steelheads, but at present the sole fish being worked with are king salmon.

“The research is primarily escapement counting and sampling to obtain biological information,” Breakfield said.


The fertilized eggs are mixed with water before they are shipped to the hatchery. Water hardens the eggs.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

This information includes fish identification, size determination and whether the salmon is unmarked (a naturally produced “wild” fish still having an adipose fin) or marked (a hatchery-produced fish with the adipose fin clipped).

Salmon are also checked for other identification, including radio transmitters on the right side of their dorsal fin, a spaghetti tag on the posterior end of the dorsal fin or a tagging scar, which can be present in both locations.

All of this information is obtained by taking recordings of the fish as they pass through a chute at the weir where an underwater video camera with a motion detector is mounted.


Fisheries biologist Jeff Breakfield sorts king salmon near holding tanks at the Kasilof hatchery. Eggs from three female fish are mixed with the milt of three male fish in a bucket and then packaged in bags for shipment.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Breakfield said fish also are manually sampled one day a week by taking scales to determine the age and sex of both hatchery-produced and wild king salmon. These sampled fish are then placed in a holding pond for the second part of the Crooked Creek facility’s work — brood stock collection.


Mary Krusen and Sarah Glaves pour the fertilized eggs from three king salmon into a heavy plastic bag for shipment to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's hatchery at Fort Richardson near Anchorage. The young salmon that hatch from the eggs will be released into the Kasilof River and Sport Lake near Soldotna.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“We spawn the fish there,” Breakfield said, in regard to how the collection takes place.

To do this, Breakfield dons rubber waders and, using a net, crowds the fish into a small section of the pond where he can ensure that only wild kings are caught for collection and that these fish — which typically range from 15 to 40 pounds — are ready to spawn.

All other salmon — hatchery-produced and wild fish not quite at their reproductive peak — are passed upstream to spawn naturally. Breakfield said it’s really quite simple to discern which fish are ready for spawning.

“The hens will look ripe. They’ll be colored up with bellies that are sagging and soft to the touch. You’ll also see single eggs coming out of them,” he said.

As to the male fish, Breakfield said he doesn’t even have to check them.

“All the bucks are ready to go,” he said.


Dozens of freshly collected king salmon eggs fill a heavy plastic bag at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's hatchery on Crooked Creek in Kasilof during an "egg take" by department employees. More than 100,000 eggs will be collected there this summer and then trucked to a facility at Fort Richardson, where they will be raised for release into the Kasilof River and Sport Lake.

Fish determined ready to spawn are then humanely euthanized, and the creamy, white milt of males and the translucent, cherry-colored eggs of females are harvested by milking them into a five-gallon bucket. The spawning ratio is one to one, with three females and three males milked per bucket.

“We squirt the milt of a buck into the bottom of the bucket, then we put in eggs from three hens, then the milt of two more bucks on top,” Breakfield said.

The average number of eggs produced by a female is roughly 5,900, according to Breakfield. “This year we have some really good hens, though, so the average was around 6,600 eggs per hen, and we did egg-takes on 27 hens, so we’ll probably end up with around 178,200 eggs total.”

Once milt and eggs are in the bucket, they are carefully mixed to further ensure fertilization. Then water is swirled into the bucket to harden the eggs. This water comes from the Fort Richardson State Fish Hatchery near Anchorage, where the fertilized eggs are then shipped.

“Using water from Fort Richardson ensures that disease can’t be transferred to the hatchery if there is any present in the water at Crooked Creek,” Breakfield said.

At Fort Richardson, the eggs are put into incubators to hatch into young salmon called alevins that have big, bloated yolk sacks dangling from their abdomens.

Once these yolk sack reserves are absorbed, the young fish become fry and are transferred to outdoor holding pens where they are fed and continue to grow to roughly 5 grams in weight and between four and five inches in length, at which point they have their adipose fins clipped, are tagged and transferred back to the Crooked Creek facility.

“Around 105,000 a year come back down. We’ll see the fish from the eggs we just collected back again for release in spring of 2008,” Breakfield said.

Once returned to the Crooked Creek facility, the young fish are kept in a holding pond for seven days before being released. This is done to imprint them to Crooked Creek so the fish can home in on these waters when they return in a few years to spawn as adults.

“We wouldn’t want hatchery-produced fish going up the Kenai (River) or into other rivers where they could potentially alter the genetics of the fish populations in those systems,” he said.

Breakfield said this is one of the reasons for clipping the adipose fin of hatchery-produced chinooks. It ensures that any hatchery-produced fish, should they stray from Crooked Creek or the Kasilof River, can be quickly and easily identified.

Breakfield said the clipped fins also help sport fishermen differentiate hatchery-produced chinooks from their wild counterparts for the purpose of complying with regulations, since the latter are only allowed to be retained a few days a week.

“Our sustainable escapement goal for Crooked Creek is 650 to 1,700 wild fish,” Breakfield said, but added that achieving this goal without exceeding it can often be challenging.

Breakfield said in 2004 roughly 2,500 hatchery-produced kings and 2,500 wild kings passed through the weir at Crooked Creek during the early run. In 2005, roughly 1,100 hatchery-produced fish and 1,903 wild fish came through. In 2006, more than 400 hatchery-produced fish and more than 1,000 wild fish had passed through the weir by mid-July.

In the short run, some fishermen have benefited from these strong returns of salmon, based on Fish and Game harvest surveys.

“Mostly it’s the Kasilof sportsfishermen that benefit from it. It’s how they were allowed to keep either a hatchery or wild fish three days a week this year as opposed to two,” Breakfield said.

Breakfield said that in 2004, reported harvests indicated 791 hatchery-produced kings and 714 wild kings were kept, while in 2005, it was 741 hatchery-produced fish to 862 wild fish. And by mid-July this year it was 458 hatchery-produced and 941 wild fish.

Breakfield was quick to point out, though, that these numbers are for fish recorded during Fish and Game creel surveys which only take place five days a week, and not the full 24 hours a day that anglers are allowed to fish. He said the final estimate for how many fish are caught “is definitely higher.”

While exceeding the upper-end escapement for Crooked Creek isn’t desired, people reaping the benefits from this fishery’s enhancement is one of the facility’s goals, according to Breakfield.

“We try to help the wild fish by enhancing the sport fishery with hatchery fish. This way people get to keep fish, but wild fish also make it to escapement,” he said.

Breakfield said that this enhancement work is also the reason the Kasilof River can be fished 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“If it wasn’t enhanced people would likely only be able to fish one or two days a week,” he said.

Breakfield said this 24-7 fishing on the Kasilof River also reduces pressure on nearby waterways that have smaller wild runs, such as the Ninilchik River, Deep Creek and the Anchor River.

While sportsfishermen receive most of the dividends from this Crooked Creek fishery enhancement, they do provide some of the investment for it. It costs roughly $121,700 annually to operate the Crooked Creek facility and this money comes from a combination of federal funding and state funding generated from sportfishing license fees, Breakfield said.

However, this still doesn’t get successful anglers out of that cup of coffee.

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