Grant Funds Renovation of Sitka Sound Science Center Hatchery
Students learn about salmon aquaculture at Sitka Sound Science Center.
Alaska’s oldest salmon hatchery is getting a makeover. The Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC), on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, just received a $500,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to pay for plumbing, electricity, and safety upgrades.
“It’s in horrible shape,” says SSSC Executive Director Lisa Busch. “It’s unsafe. It was built with inexpensive material back in 1974, and it’s just well, well, well beyond its useful life.”
The center has been operating the hatchery buildings since 2010, after the college abruptly closed in 2007. Professors with ongoing research projects scrambled to keep it open.
“The salmon didn’t know,” Busch says. “They didn’t get the notice that the college had shut down, so they were returning to the hatchery.” Volunteers kept it going until the nonprofit took over.
In the last decade, SSSC has rebuilt the hatchery into a field research station and tourist attraction. Part of the $3.5 million in refurbishment so far, Busch says, is thanks to the Murdock Trust, which bought the center’s first new piece of hatchery equipment.
The charity funds projects in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana that strengthen the “educational, spiritual, and cultural base” of the Pacific Northwest region, according to the grant announcement. The trust is the legacy of electronics pioneer Melvin Jack Murdock, who vanished in 1971 after crashing his plane into the Columbia River.
“It really makes a huge difference to our ability to deliver our mission when we have that kind of help,” says Busch.
Much more modestly scaled than the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward (for one thing, Sitka has no marine mammal enclosures), Busch sees SSSC as a platform for research in the Tongass National Forest and across the North Pacific. Scientists based at the center are studying salmon genetics, ocean acidification, and a topic of special interest to Southeast Alaska coastal communities: landslides.
Busch says the Sitka Tribe is working with researchers from the Rand Corporation, University of Oregon, and University of Southern California to study landslides. She describes the center’s role as a facilitator for that cooperation.
Scientists at the center also share their knowledge directly with the public: community engagement is a requirement for working there. “That makes the education programs so great because we have authentic science researchers coming in and out of those programs,” Busch says.
The original hatchery was built in 1974 by students of Sheldon Jackson College.
And of course, the hatchery is still hatching salmon. Students at Sheldon Jackson College built the facility in 1974, when aquaculture in Alaska was in its infancy. Then, as now, fish farming was illegal in the state, but nothing forbids a hatchery from releasing fry into the wild to fend for themselves. Hatcheries statewide now employ about 4,700 people, Busch estimates, and many of them had their first experience in Sitka.
Busch recalls various state officials visiting SSSC, “and the very first thing they would say to me is, ‘Well, how’s the hatchery?’ I was like, ‘Why does everybody care about this little dinky hatchery?’ Well, they all went here. They all got their training at Sheldon Jackson.”
The center also has programs at all three Sitka high schools, as well as programs for college undergrads. “Our hope is that they go out and work in the aquaculture industry and be good ambassadors for that,” Busch says.
By keeping SSSC in good shape, Busch hopes it will train Alaskans for the aquaculture workforce. “Hatcheries always do a little bit of recruiting from the Lower 48, ‘Come to Alaska!’ But we’d rather have people who can put up with the bad weather and the remote living and train our own.”
The hatchery also generates revenue for SSSC through “cost recovery fishing.” A long-term contract with Silver Bay Seafoods allows a commercial seiner to harvest returning salmon from a special use area within Sitka Sound. The hatchery is “permitted for 3 million pink salmon eggs, 3 million chum, and 250,000 coho,” Busch explains. “Those are big numbers but that’s a small amount compared to, like, 40 million, which the big aquaculture facilities have.”
Silver Bay processes the fish and sells the product; the fisherman takes a cut; and SSSC gets the rest of the proceeds.
All that cash goes to the upkeep of the aging buildings, part of a campus originally founded in 1878. It had seen better days by the time Busch became SSSC director in 2010: “My office had six buckets in it because the roof was so leaky, and all the windows were cracked in the whole building.”
Those problems have been fixed, so the main project for the latest Murdock Trust grant is co-locating the spawning area with the incubation area in the basement of the neighboring building. Currently, salmon embryos are carried in buckets, down stairs. Busch says the Spawning & Incubation Facility, called SpIFy, will streamline the process.
“It’s expensive because there’s a lot of process plumbing and that kind of thing,” she says. “Technical plumbing unique to incubation, so that adds up.”
The improvements, part of a master plan since SSSC purchased the hatchery in 2010, should also enhance the center as a tourist attraction. “People love watching and learning about the salmon hatchery business and commercial fishing and how that mixes with subsistence and sport fishing,” Busch says. The center saw 20,000 visitors in 2019, and after a down year in 2020, Busch expects about 400,000 will pass through Sitka in 2022.
By then, she hopes the building will be ready. After that, the next major project will be an expansion of the small aquarium originally set up by a Sheldon Jackson professor.
Busch notes the difference that funding like the Murdock Trust grant has made during the last decade. The hatchery used to be an eyesore, but she says, “Now people look around and go, ‘This is cool. This is really cool.’”