Situated at the base of the Alaska Range in the northern reaches of the 26,500 square-mile Copper River Basin, the Gulkana salmon hatchery operates just a few miles north of Paxson on the Gulkana River. Since 2008, the Gulkana hatchery has provided about 19 percent of the catch, or 32,000 adult sockeye annually, to the personal-use and subsistence fisheries in the Copper River Basin.
During peak years, 35% of the sockeye catch in this region of the Interior is a direct result of the Gulkana hatchery. In addition to that output, the hatchery is committed to the broodstock process, which perpetuates the fitness and health of the stocks year after year. For a region relying heavily upon healthy and sustainable salmon runs, these are welcomed returns year after year.
Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., the operator of the Gulkana hatchery, is proud of these numbers. They reflect the contributions made to the Interior sport, public use, and subsistence users, but just as importantly, they reflect the mission of the Alaska salmon hatchery program. More fish for Alaskans is part of the mission of PWSAC and has proved to be an effective mission year after year throughout the Copper River Basin and on the shores of Chitina.
The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. is a private, nonprofit hatchery association founded by a local commercial fishermen’s organization in 1974, when state harvests fell to record lows.
Since its inception, Gulkana and the other four remote PWSAC hatcheries in Prince William Sound have helped ease the strain of harvests on wild populations. Alongside limited-entry, stocking, and habitat enhancement projects, PWSAC hatcheries have contributed to the overall growth in returns and harvest numbers for all five salmon species in the Southcentral and Interior regions since the 1980s.
Over the 40-plus years that the hatchery program has been in operation, the average annual harvest of wild salmon in the Alaska fishery has almost doubled, from 40 million salmon from 1910 to 1973 to 75 million salmon from 1974 to 2018.
On the Copper River, sockeye have met the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s escapement goals every year for 30 years, a testament to the productivity and management of the river’s fisheries. In 2019, Copper River sockeye surpassed the goal’s upper limit, with 1.04 million fish having swum by the sonar counter at Miles Lake by July 28 — 250,000 fish more than the upper limit.
Commercial fisheries have benefited, no doubt, but the hatcheries, which come at no cost to the public, support not only sport and subsistence users but also other species, including trout, eagles, bears, and whales.
The Chitina River dip-net fishery is a highlight for Alaskans every season and injects serious revenue into Interior economies through guide services and outfitters, lodging, and more with over 12,600 permits issued and over 230,000 salmon harvested annually.
The Glennallen Subdistrict is also home to many longtime family-held fishwheels that provide bountiful subsistence opportunities year after year. These harvest opportunities are meaningful to so many of our friends and neighbors. PWSAC is proud to be a contributor to the harvests and economic engines of the Interior.
Over the years since the Gulkana hatchery was taken on by PWSAC, the organization has worked to foster collaboration and discussions with Interior representatives in the Legislature, Ahtna Inc. leaders of the Copper Basin region, and communities like Fairbanks, Delta Junction, Glennallen, and everywhere in between. To remain aligned with the mission at hand and promote sustainable salmon runs for future generations of Alaskans, PWSAC is committed to the Gulkana hatchery and the opportunities strong, sustainable harvests create for villages, off-grid communities, and cities alike in Alaska’s Interior.
To learn more about the Alaska hatchery program and hatcheries statewide, visit salmonhatcheriesforak.org.
Casey Campbell is CEO of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. He was born and raised in Alaska and has been involved in Alaska fisheries as a commercial and sport fisherman for over 25 years.