If you want to marvel at the sight of thousands of fish schooling in gigantic tanks, take the self-guided tour inside the state fish hatchery on the banks of Ship Creek east of downtown. The museum-quality observation deck offers intimate views of a complex operation that produces up to six million sport fish each year.
The full hatchery experience begins outdoors, where a nature walk follows Ship Creek to the facility where returning mature chinook and coho salmon are collected for their eggs. From June to September, these fish may be seen swirling in the clear waters near a fish ladder. During cold season, these brood fish tanks are silent. But you can still view the falls gushing over the old Ship Creek dam. Watch for spectacular ice build-up during cold snaps.
Round and round they go
The most startling may be the massive 26-foot-diameter production tanks, each holding 23,000 gallons of water with space for up to 30,000 fish. Equally large tanks house the hatchery’s brood stock of rainbow trout and Arctic char.
Watch the blue-and-gray-backed fish swim in the classic schooling behavior. They look like an armada of zeppelins as they swirl in an ever-tightening circle.
The video screens spaced along the walk each tell a unique chapter of the hatchery story in three- to seven-minute segments. Some show fish underwater. Combined with info displays, the experience is like visiting an aquarium inside a natural history museum.
The pleasant indoor walk (about 150 yards) features:
- Big plate glass windows overlooking ongoing operations as hatchery staff tend to millions of fish bound for Southcentral Alaska lakes and streams
- Eight video screens showing short documentaries about the hatchery and its fish
- Detailed info displays
- Gobs of salmon-inspired art
- There might be up to four million eggs in those incubation trays.
- The rearing and production tanks have space for six million fish including fingerlings (1" to 2"), smolts (3" to 5") and catchables (7" to 12").
- Periodically between May to October, staff will pump fish into tanks and then release them into lakes and streams throughout the region. Some stocking runs to remote sites can take 24 hours.
- Each of the 32 ten-foot-diameter rearing tanks might hold up to 150,000 freshly hatched fish at a time.
- The hatchery is named for Jack “Bill” Hernandez, a former World War II veteran (and POW held three years by Japanese forces) who spent 26 years establishing and then overseeing hatchery operations for the military and the State of Alaska. He died in 2003.