Hatchery fish make up only small fraction of sockeye run

Posted: Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Someone has written to the Clarion accusing commercial salmon marketers of fraud. This person says that wild Cook Inlet salmon are actually tame hatchery hombres. Since this person is seldom known for getting anything right, I'll offer the facts.

There are three hatchery projects that affect upper Cook Inlet commercial fishers: one at Big Lake (north of Anchorage), one at Hidden Lake (east of Sterling) and one on Tustumena Lake. For 2003, experts estimate the hatchery component to be: Big Lake 18,000 sockeye; Hidden Lake 20,000; and Tustumena Lake less than 150,000.

The Cook Inlet return in 2003 was about 6.3 million sockeye. That means 3 percent of the sockeye that returned in 2003 came from hatchery enhancement. In 2002, the numbers indicate a hatchery strength of about 5.5 percent.

If that 5 percent were in some way inferior to the 95 percent, we might expect marketers to mention it. They are, however, so identical that biologists and fishermen would be unable to distinguish them if they weren't specially marked at the hatchery.

Up to 90 percent of the salmon eggs incubated in a hatchery can mature to babies called "fry." In Cook Inlet streams, about 10 percent of the eggs laid by salmon can be expected to mature to fry if freezing or floods don't destroy them. Hatcheries release their sockeye fry in lakes where they generally live for a year before "smolting" or heading out to seek their fortune in the ocean.

Salmon fry must compete in a dog-eat-dog environment to find food and avoid being eaten. That continues to be the case as they make a several thousand mile migration.

Interestingly, the hatchery component of Kenai Peninsula coho and king salmon is much higher. Seward coho, for instance, can be 50 percent hatchery stock, and large numbers of Cook Inlet coho also are from hatcheries. Crooked Creek, a tributary of the Kasilof River, has been sporting kings with a 70 percent hatchery component.

But, of course, those are the fish my accuser markets.

Brent Johnson

Clam Gulch

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