Cook Inlet aquaculture means more than salmon hatcheries. It’s a series of weirs that help state managers make better decisions that build sustainable fisheries — as well as an effort to build fish ladders and clear passages for adult salmon to return to their spawning grounds. It’s a research program and a way to reduce populations of invasive fish that prey on juvenile salmon. It’s also a public education program designed to forge connections and introduce a new generation to salmon biology.
The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) is a $5 million salmon fisheries enhancement program supported by commercial fishing taxes and a portion of the salmon harvest set aside for “cost recovery.”
To get a better understanding of how aquaculture works in the Cook Inlet region, let’s have a look at why Alaska salmon hatcheries were first established in the early 1970s and how these salmon enhancement programs lead to sustainable salmon returns.
A Brief History of Alaska Salmon Aquaculture
Since 1976, CIAA has provided and protected sustainable wild salmon runs along the Kenai Peninsula, Cook Inlet, and Matanuska-Susitna Valley. CIAA is a private non-profit organization supported by taxes, grants, and an allotment of the salmon hatchery harvest called “cost recovery.”
- 1923 — The first hatchery-based Cook Inlet aquaculture program begins with salmon enhancement at Grouse Lake near the present-day Bear Creek Weir.
- Early 1970s — Alaska’s commercial salmon fisheries are in crisis following several historically low harvests. In 1973 and 1974, Alaska fishermen caught just 22 million salmon compared to 238 million in 2021.
- 1971 — The Alaska State Legislature boosts hatchery development by establishing the Division of Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement, and Development within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
- 1972 — Alaska voters amended the state constitution to allow limited entry to state fisheries, allowing cost recovery for hatcheries, and permitting the salmon harvests for broodstock—adult fish used for breeding future generations of salmon.
- 1974 — The legislature authorizes private non-profit programs like the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association to operate salmon hatcheries and support themselves with a Salmon Enhancement Tax on commercial fishing permit holders.
- 1976 — Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association begins operations.
- 1980 — Due in part to salmon hatchery fisheries enhancement, the Alaska commercial salmon harvest reaches a milestone of 109 million fish.
- 1995 — The Alaska salmon harvest crosses the 200 million mark with 217 million fish.
- 2021 — Alaska commercial fishermen catch a record 238 million salmon.
The Difference Between Aquaculture, Mariculture, and Alaska Salmon Aquaculture
Aquaculture is a blanket term that can mean a few different things—but Alaska salmon aquaculture has very specific goals governed by state law.
In the Lower 48 and elsewhere in the world, aquaculturists at fish hatcheries raise adults to stock lakes and streams for sports fishermen. Aquaculture also mass-produces fish for restaurants and supermarket freezers. But, this isn’t how it’s done in Alaska.
State law restricts aquatic farming to shellfish, like oysters, mussels, clams, and the growing seaweed farming industry. These kinds of farms have begun referring to themselves as mariculture to distinguish themselves from salmon hatchery programs.
Aquaculture in Alaska collects eggs from wild salmon, called broodstock, for fertilization in hatcheries. Juvenile fish are raised in protected net pens and raceways until they are large enough to be released into the wild. By state law, salmon hatcheries can’t selectively breed Alaska salmon nor transfer salmon to or from distant places. The law carefully requires that salmon from hatcheries in each region be identical to their cousins born in lakes and streams. In fact, once a hatchery fish is released into the wild, it returns to the same area shared by its ancestors.
The word “aquaculture” can mean a few different things. In most of the world, it’s the farming of marine plants and animals in ponds, rivers, lakes, and seas. In Alaska, aquatic farms are restricted to seaweed and shellfish because the state bans the farming of salmon, herring, and other finfish. When you talk about salmon aquaculture, it’s not fish farming. It’s a way to enhance fisheries to ensure consistent, sustainable harvests for everyone who fishes for salmon.
This kind of Alaska aquaculture can more accurately be described as “free ranging,” because the salmon live their lives in nature rather than captivity.
The Reach of Cook Inlet Aquaculture
CIAA operations cover an area that ranges from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and parts of the Alaska Peninsula across the Inlet. It includes the Shell Lake weir deep in the Susitna River system, four hatcheries on the Kenai Peninsula and several other release sites and monitoring stations on the Kenai and Alaska peninsulas.
CIAA’s operations include:
CIAA contracts with fish processors who hire commercial fishermen to harvest sockeye and pink salmon from mid-May to October to cover hatchery operations costs.
CIAA’s public education programs reach people at its hatcheries and weirs and in local classrooms and events. area provides hands-on activities that help local schoolchildren learn more about salmon biology and the Alaskan way of life. CIAA biologists lead salmon dissections in classrooms, as well as dissections of invasive northern pike which often have hundreds of salmon fry in their bellies. Youth programs like Outward Bound bring students to Bear Creek Weir for a day to work on service projects. Finally, CIAA offers internships to college students.
Adult salmon instinctively return to the lakes and streams where they were born, but if there are obstacles in their way, they might exhaust themselves before they have a chance to spawn. CIAA helps remove seasonal migration barriers by building fishways and ladders that allow salmon to bypass impassable river rapids. CIAA builds flow control structures that can regulate the flow of streams at Bear, Daniels, Marten, and Packers lakes. They also make small temporary notches in beaver dams to allow salmon to cross from the stream into the ponds behind the dam that protect juvenile salmon after they hatch. Finally, CIAA fertilizes lakes to boost populations of zooplankton, an important food source for juvenile salmon.
CIAA’s fisheries production goal is to contribute 50 to 70 percent of the fish it produces to common property harvest. CIAA operates hatcheries at Eklutna, Port Graham, Trail Lakes, and Tutka Bay Lagoon.
Trail Lakes Hatchery and Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery are owned by the state and operated by CIAA. The Trail Lakes Hatchery, near Moose Pass, primarily supports CIAA’s sockeye program and provides coho for Resurrection Bay sports fishermen. Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery is permitted by the state to rear and release pink salmon. Both sockeye and pink salmon return to the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. CIAA takes eggs and sperm from Tutka Bay Lagoon to transfer to Trail Lakes Hatchery, where the eggs are fertilized, incubated, raised to juveniles, and returned to Tutka Bay Lagoon. Sockeye that return to the personal use fishery at China Poot also get their start in Tutka Bay.
In 2014, CIAA purchased the hatchery in the village of Port Graham. Pink salmon are reared and released at the Port Graham Hatchery.
The Eklutna Salmon Hatchery, near Palmer, was damaged by a 2018 earthquake. CIAA continues to maintain the property while making plans for its future.
Invasive species removal
In their native waters, northern pike are a prized catch for sports fishermen, but in Southcentral Alaska, they are an unwanted invader. In the Susitna River watershed, northern pike feast on salmon fry. At Shell Lake where sockeye salmon were nearly devastated by this invasive predator, CIAA both harvests northern pike and works to restore the numbers of sockeye salmon that mature and swim out to sea. CIAA also works to prevent and remove Elodea, a common aquarium plant that degrades salmon habitat and can grow so thick that salmon have trouble moving through it.
CIAA operates different sites during the open water season to count different salmon populations; some wild, some hatchery, and some a mixture of both. These monitoring sites are located throughout the Cook Inlet area. They provide data to fishery managers about the health of salmon populations, inform our hatchery operations and can even shed some light on trends in a population.
Who Benefits From Cook Inlet Aquaculture?
Together, Cook Inlet aquaculture operations benefit the following user groups:
- Commercial fishermen — CIAA produces pink and sockeye salmon for harvest in Cook Inlet and Resurrection Bay. Hatchery-produced salmon are caught by Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, especially in lower Cook Inlet. Crews can fish closer to home and support local communities, rather than traveling to other parts of Alaska.
- Sports fishermen — CIAA benefits sport fishermen who travel along the Kenai Peninsula to fish for salmon. In Resurrection Bay, fishermen enjoy sockeye and coho catches available because of CIAA-produced fish. These fisheries boost the economy of Seward through the charter boat bookings, campground and lodging reservations, and other revenue that flows into the community during sportfishing season.
- Personal use fishermen — The China Poot dipnet fishery is a popular alternative for Alaskans to get their protein each season rather than face the crowded beaches of the Kenai personal use fishery. The sockeye salmon that return to this fishery are solely provided for by CIAA.
- Nature — The work CIAA does through aquaculture and special projects also benefits nature by providing clear passage for salmon throughout Cook Inlet. The adults that return from hatchery releases and habitat improvements not only feed Alaskans, but also native wildlife such as bears, foxes, other fish, and future salmon populations.