Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Alaska Hatchery - Wildlife and Work

The Salmon hatchery is an interesting operation. Basically, the hatchery fools the fish into thinking that they are going into a stream to spawn (which is the fish's life goal) but they are really going into a holding pen where they are shocked and sent up a conveyor belt for processing.
You can see the holding pen and conveyor belt here. Oh, and one of the black bears that pluck fish out of the pen too.
The "creek"
I feel bad for the fish but when you think about it, the fish basically end up with the same fate as if they actually spawned because they die afterward anyway. The conveyor belt drops the fish in the processing shed where workers cut the female fish open. The roe pours into a bucket and the dead fish are sent sliding down a shoot into a waiting boat for processing into dog food. The males are just sent down the shoot.
Egg Take
The eggs are sent to the incubation room where they are tended in a dark warehouse for a few months. The incubation warehouse has stacks and stacks of shelves with water running over them. Each shelf holds 60,000 eggs and there were hundreds of shelves in the warehouse. You can see the pink eggs in the photo.

Incubation Room
We worked really hard to get the new computers and wireless network set up for the staff. The hatchery site is comprised of multiple buildings that needed to be set up. Omar planned out the use of point to point wireless system to connect all of the buildings without digging a trench for the wire. Believe it or not, I ended up on the lift truck!

 Here is a photo of me and the maintenance man Nick up on the lift installing the wireless "Lightbeam" unit.
Me and Nick
This is the view from the top of the incubation warehouse. Yikes! (Yes, that's another bear on the grass)
View from above
We stayed in the bunkhouse in shared rooms with the staff and were served 3 meals per day all prepared by Chef Manny from the Phillipines.

Chef Manny making ciabatta rolls
Beef Bourguignon!
Beef Bourguignon
Meanwhile, lots of life and death action outside between the salmon and the predators. The salmon are thick and easy prey for the bear once they get into the holding pond. We saw 4 different bears during our stay. The staff know all of them individually.

Black Bear
The bears are really nothing to worry about. They are only going after the dead fish along the shore. On the other hand, the real predators are the Stellar's Sea Lions. These are massive creatures that can weigh up to 2500 pounds and be up to 11 feet long. I watched a group of them methodically work the salmon run for about an hour. I positioned myself on the dock and snapped about hundred photos as they surfaced along the outer edge of the salmon. Here are 2 of them with fish.

Stellar's Sea Lions with salmon
Here is a video of them patrolling the water. Look at all of the salmon in the foreground.

They would grab a fish and toss it into the air. I didn't realize how precise this action was until I caught a few with my camera. I realize that each Sea Lion would grab the fish by the head and bite it off as they tossed the fish in the air. This action would release the roe which you can see in the photos below. That's not blood, it's eggs.

Stellar's Sea Lion with salmon
The Sea Lion knows exactly where to bite the fish to get the eggs to pour out. Zoom in and look at all of the individual eggs being sprayed.

Stellar's Sea Lion ripping into a salmon
The gulls would swoop in and pick the eggs out of the water.

Gull clean up
I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous on that dock by myself with those monsters in the water nearby. Good thing I don't look like a salmon.

Back to work after a short break. We worked until 11 PM every day to get the work done but glad to spend a few minutes learning about the operation and watching the predator/prey dance unfold.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Working in Alaska

A chance of a lifetime fell into my lap a few months ago when I answered a request from someone at Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp - a nonprofit based in Alaska. PWSAC works with the Salmon fisheries to operate hatcheries in Prince William Sound. They have 7 locations that needed all new computer and network setups. I jumped at the opportunity and won the job for Tech Impact. After months of planning, Omar and I headed out to Anchorage on Tuesday Sept 4th. Our trip started with a hiccup when our pilot aborted takeoff from Dallas at the very last second. The brakes locked up and we sat in the airport for 8 hours. Never arrived in Anchorage until 4 AM on Wed and had to be at the first location by 7 AM. Yuck.

Aborted Flight - Dallas
Wed was a looooong day. We worked in Anchorage for a few hours then packed up equipment and headed to our first remote location called AFK. AFK is a fish hatchery site located on Evans Island. We took a commuter flight on Alaska Air Transit. Here is the pilot and Omar.

Alaska Air Transit Flight

We had a "bluebird" day to sight-see from the plane. Its funny because both times that I've been in this area people tell me that the weather is NEVER this nice. Hmmm. Maybe its me :-) This first photo shows the Seward Highway and Cook Inlet (and the plane's tire). We drove this road on our last trip to Alaska.

Seward Highway from above
One of the other passengers pointed out the Beluga Whales in the water. You can barely see one in the bottom left of this photo.

Beluga Whale
We started over the mountains and got to see glaciers from above.

Glacier View
This is the terminus of one of the glaciers.

Glacier Terminus and Ice Bergs
Our flight landed on Evans Island in a native Alaskan village of Chenega Bay. The airstrip was literally stone.

Chenega Bay Airstrip
Our journey wasn't complete at the airstrip. We loaded the equipment into a pickup truck and headed to the dock where we loaded all of the computer equipment into a skiff. Not even kidding.


Heading to the hatchery
The PWSAC guys let me drive the boat.
Driving the skiff
By now, it's 4 PM Wed and I'm working on 1 hour sleep. We still had to unload the boat and start the actual job. However, I couldn't dive into the computer work without checking out the action at the docks. The water was filled with Pink Salmon. There were so many fish that I could have walked across the inlet on their backs. This is one photo of the fish that congregated under the dock.

Pink Salmon under the dock
More to come about the wildlife activity and working conditions at this site. We worked until 10 PM and passed out in the bunk house where we stayed for 2 nights.