Katie Harms has an interest “in all things fish and all things ocean.”
So when the St. Petersburg, Florida native had a chance to join the Macauley Salmon Hatchery in Juneau, she jumped at it. Harms is Tourism and Education Manager at Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc. (DIPAC), the organization that manages the visitor center at the hatchery.
“I knew salmon were delicious, but I didn’t know anything about their life cycle,” she said. “I had a natural draw to the ocean, and this was a new species for me to learn about.”
When Harms first arrived in Juneau for a short visit, she never looked back.
“I love the outdoors. My dad was an avid outdoorsman who taught all of us kids to appreciate nature. But enjoying the outdoors became harder and harder as more and more people moved to Florida.”
“But there are so many miles of trails here. There are more trails than roads, and that’s pretty awesome. There’s more wilderness than city. I love people, but I love nature, and there’s nothing better than to go out and enjoy the woods and the ocean.”
Now, Harms, who majored in Marine Biology at the University of West Florida, can enthusiastically cite chapter and verse about the life cycles of the varieties of the fish. Take, for example, the Pacific Salmon. Pacific salmon spawn only once when they return from hundreds of mile of ocean to the river where they were spawned.
“Pacific salmon have a special life cycle in that they don’t spawn more than one time,” she said. “They return to the same freshwater they were born in, lay their eggs and then they die. They begin here as eggs, they go out into the ocean for the rest of their lives and then they come back to spawn and carry on their genes.”
Harms believes that the purpose of the hatchery is vital to Alaska.
DIPAC’s mission is to “sustain and enhance valuable salmon resources of the State of Alaska for economic, social and cultural benefit of all citizens, and to promote public understanding of Alaska’s salmon resources and salmon fisheries through research, education and tourism.”
“Our mission is pretty amazing to me,” she said. “If these hatcheries did not exist I wouldn’t imagine there would be a commercial fishing industry in Alaska. With human population growth we’re growing faster than we can keep up with. We need to be able to feed everybody, to get protein in their diet, and the hatchery is kind of an ocean ranch. With aquaculture, we can feed the world.”
“By incubating and releasing salmon, we’re here to fill the peaks and valleys of the salmon numbers to make sure there’s a consistent salmon population.”
DIPAC, formed in 1976 with a mission to enhance the state’s declining salmon population, incubates chum, chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, with the chum and sockeye produced for commercial fishing and the chinook and sockeye mostly for local sport fishing. The state allows organizations like DIPAC to harvest a certain number of salmon that return to their breeding grounds each year.
The majority of what the hatchery raises is “chum” salmon, which they incubate and release into the ocean in the winter.
The hatchery also has an education program for second graders in the Juneau school district. Harms said every second-grader in Juneau can come to the hatchery and “learn what’s beneath the ocean.”
In addition, cruise ship visitors can also stop in any time for a 30 minute presentation on salmon and DIPAC’s activities as a hatchery. Harms said the peak of the return season for adult salmon is July and August.
“We have millions of baby salmon that are imprinting, or memorizing their river origins, on this area before they go out into the ocean,” Harms said. “Every visitor is able to see a portion of the salmon life cycle when they’re here. It’s pretty amazing to educate people about salmon.”
“I think it’s great to educate not only people on cruise ships but little kids in Juneau about how it’s part of Alaska’s culture. It’s amazing to see that light bulb go on over their heads as they begin to understand the importance of salmon.”
Admission to the hatchery is $5 for adults and $3 for kids and includes a 10-15 minute informational presentation.
Great Juneau salmon fishing experiences:
(1) Shore fishing with Chum Fun Charters, located on the dock next to the DIPAC hatchery, owned and operated by Paul and Michelle Turinsky
(2) Charter boat fishing with Rum Runner Charters, owned and operated by Chris Conder
Harms likes her salmon grilled, no matter what type, and she added that she likes to catch pink salmon, smoke them and send them to her family in the South.
But Alaskans can be particular about their salmon.
“Alaskans are picky,” she said. “When you ask people to pick their favorite, most people in Alaska say either sockeye or king salmon. Some people are like, ‘I won’t ever eat a chum salmon,’ but if you fillet them and grill them up they’re great.”
Aside from good eating, salmon is more than just a fish to Harms and Alaska.
“The thing about salmon is they’re not just a fish in Alaska, they’re a way of life,” she said.
If you are interested in learning more about the miracle of salmon, the podcast Encounters with Sitka local Richard Nelson called Salmon: The Miracle, is a great listen.