Spawning Day

“Tomorrow we are spawning salmon, do you want to come and take pictures.”   I had never heard salmon be the object of the verb to spawn but I understood what August meant.  So at 9 in the morning I was at the Sitka Sound Science Center, with my camera, to see how people spawned salmon.

I do not know the technical terms but I divided the process into seven steps, wrangling, sorting, bonking, cutting, squeezing, washing and incubating.

At high tide the salmon climb the fish ladder and end up in a fish pound.  From there Lee wrangles the fish into a ball.  He manipulates a big net, with the help of August on an electric crane, to move that ball out of the pond and into a tote full of water enriched with CO2.  The CO2  “relaxes” the fish.  After each net dip Lee moves a fence through the water to make the pound a little smaller, concentrating the remaining fish in a smaller area.

Sorting takes place at the tote.  August and Lee lift each fish out.  They are looking for pinks.  If they find a chum they put it into a big PVC pipe and the fish slides it into separate pound.  They will “spawn” the chum in a week or so.

August and Lee toss fish that have already “spawned out” into a tote filled with ice.  They will go to a processor to make salmon flavored pet treats.  Spent carcasses from the spawning shack also go into that tote.  A couple of buckets are separated out to become fertilizer for the garden.

Female fish that are two “green,” not ready to spawn yet, get thrown back into the pond for another day.   You can tell if a fish is “green” by squeezing.  If a few eggs pop out, it is ready.  If they don’t — back into the drink.

The males, easy to tell by their humped backs and hooked jaws, are always ready.  August finds a healthy male, who has not begun to rot, to find a new life in the aquarium.  I’m not sure if he is lucky because he will live a little longer or unlucky because he will not breed.

Fish not culled in the sorting get bonked.  August and Lee hit the salmon with a short aluminum baseball bat.  They look like kid’s bats.  Bat on fish sounds like a solid softball line drive.   Males are tossed into one window of the spawning shack, females another.

While taking pictures from the sea walk a visitor commented on how cruel it seemed, hitting the fish with a bat.  I took her out the jetty and showed her the mix of fish, some living, some spawned out, seabirds feeding on the remains.  “They are going to die anyway, this way their genetic material is more likely to survive.”

Inside the spawning shack Brian takes the females, slits their bellies and pulls out the eggs.  The orange eggs go down a shoot into a bucket.  Every once in a while there is a female that was really not ready.  The eggs are still in a skein.  This is what the caviar makers look for, but this is a hatchery, not a processor, so the skein of eggs is tossed.

On the other side of the spawning shack Roger takes a bucket of eggs, puts in a little water, sets it on a table, picks up a male and squeezes him.  These males ARE ready.  The milt (sperm) shoots into the bucket.  After a few fish are squeezed Roger mixes the eggs and milt with his hand.  Then he washes the fertilized eggs.  He puts in more water, swirls the bucket and carefully decants the top layer, taking out any clotted blood or broken eggs.

When Roger has four fertilized egg buckets he takes them to the incubator room in the basement of the Science Center.  He pours the fertilized eggs into incubator trays.  Each tray holds about a quarter million eggs.  Today he hopes to fill 12 trays, three million eggs.

If all goes well the eggs in the incubator will “eye out” in a month when the eye of the baby salmon will become visible in the egg.  They hatch a month or so later and the cycle continues.

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