- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - For John Burke, a 40-year career in Alaska fisheries began on the floor of a house in St. Mary’s, a small bush community on Yukon River.

In late January, Burke will retire as the general manager of the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association.

The Washington state native who got in on the ground floor of Alaska’s salmon hatchery program took a look back at his career in fisheries.

He worked within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 20 years - including a role as a chief fishery scientist for Alaska in the creation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty - before joining SSRAA.

At an interview in his office on Borch Street in mid-January, Burke, 73, noted his time with SSRAA and his work on the treaty have been the highlights of his career.

He joined SSRAA, then saddled with $17 million in debt and an unsure footing, in May of 1998.

Now, SSRAA is free of that debt and has become one of the most consistently productive salmon hatcheries in Alaska.

The Yukon River

His time in the Last Frontier began at the end of the Yukon River.

Burke took a summer job in 1974 helping Alaska Native fishermen in St. Mary’s get free of a cycle of debt fishing for a company store.

“Literally, they owed the store a year’s worth of fishing money every year by the time they went fishing,” said Burke, who at the time was studying fish pathology at the University of Washington. “I had no idea what I was getting into. I went straight from my last finals to St. Mary’s.”

He slept on the floor of the house owned by the family who were leading the effort to set up a fishing cooperative in the town.

They had a lot to gain. Back then, the biggest salmon markets were in Europe, where salmon farming was not yet a force. King salmon was selling for $7 a pound in France.

Working with a fish processor within rules set by Food and Drug Administration, Burke was part of a crew that set up a commercial operation in the village that was one of the first to ever transport fish to market by airplane using Alaska Airlines’ 737s.

He spent one summer in St. Mary’s.

“Good people,” Burke said. “Really interesting situation - interesting way to get involved with the fishing industry.”

He left the Yukon to finish a fish sciences degree in Washington sponsored by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, his next employer in Alaska.

FRED

Burke got his practical introduction with Fish and Game’s Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement and Development Division, but had studied parasites affecting king salmon at the University of Washington.

The research he did there led him to a job with the fish pathology department of FRED Division, which administered Alaska’s network of salmon hatcheries created by the Alaska Legislature.

He would continue his education in the early 1980s, focusing on a virus affecting sockeyes.

“There were no sockeye smolt hatcheries anywhere in North America,” Burke said. “I went to a hatchery in Prince William Sound in 1983, and they turned that into a sockeye smelt hatchery, so it was the first one.”

He worked his way up the Fish and Game ladder to the commissioner’s office as a chief fisheries scientist. The Pacific Salmon Treaty was signed in 1985, and Burke left the department for SSRAA five years later.

Roe saved SSRAA

The success of the Ketchikan-area salmon hatchery was far from certain when Burke joined the program in 1998.

SSRAA had racked up $17 million in debt from the Fisheries Enhancement Revolving Loan Fund, a state account set up to give hatcheries the capital needed to get running.

“I was still working for Fish and Game at that point,” said Cindy Lassiter, a former fish culturist in southern Southeast and a member of SSRAA’s board. “It seemed like everything was pretty unsettled, because you can only be in debt so far without having a really hard time, and they were.”

Paying back the debt, which was quickly growing, meant cost recovery - catching and selling terminal chum salmon returning to Neets Bay.

There was a problem: No one wanted the chum.

“There was a real chance that we weren’t going to exist and that we were going to go bankrupt. I mean a real chance,” Burke said. “It’s hard to pay back $19 million with fish that nobody wants to buy.”

SSRAA leaders struck a deal with Japanese buyers for chum roe, using a custom processor called Signature Seafood and other Ketchikan processors to supply them.

The value for roe in Japan, Burke said, and an unexpected and unprecedented return in Burke’s first year, “basically saved SSRAA.”

The first summer

In 1998, five times the expected number of chum salmon returned to Neets Bay.

The chum run is just beginning in early July and hits its peak at the end of the month. Shortly after the Fourth of July, Burke boarded a floatplane to check on the hatchery and landed on a bay stuffed with fish.

“There literally were jumpers all the way from the inside of the bay to Clover Pass. I didn’t know this wasn’t normal,” Burke said. “It’s not normal.”

NorQuest Seafoods, which has since been purchased by Trident Seafoods, was processing the chums for SSRAA along with Signature Seafoods. Burke was then dealing with NorQuest bosses Terry Gardner and John Sound.

“They came that afternoon and said, ‘Look, we promised, even legally, that we would take care of half the fish. But John, every corridor now is full of fish. We can’t do it,’” Burke said.

SSRAA soon opened the bay to the common property fishery, and almost 60 seiners would flow through Neets Bay.

“Most of them were deck loaded,” Burke said. “This was before we would even anticipate the peak of the run.”

About 35 million pounds of chums were taken from the bay that summer, but SSRAA never got a full accounting from the five different processors that operated in Neets.

In a good year, the hatchery collects 10 million pounds from the bay.

“I used to wake up - I’m not kidding you - wake up about midnight and go, ‘OK, how many people are in the United States? If each person ate - Oh, we’ll never get rid of these fish!’” Burke said.

Two years close to the ‘98 record came after Burke’s first year, but chum returns would eventually level out. In the next 10 years, SSRAA had worked itself out of debt.

What’s next?

With SSRAA planning to take over the coho facility in Klawock, the organization will operate seven hatcheries.

The growth puts more pressure on Neets Bay to cover most of SSRAA’s $10.5 million operating costs, but the organization is planning changes to cover its bases.

With costs of construction and permitting always increasing, the “key right now” is building on what you have, Burke said.

Burnett Inlet is one of SSRAA’s only hatchery sites with room for growth.

“The first thing you do is increase the release at Burnett so you have a backup for Neets Bay egg takes,” he said. “If we get a bad storm or something we won’t make our egg take goal for a year. We’re also on the red line in most years, or some years, for cost recovery there.”

Chum production at Burnett Inlet could be increased by up to 40 million eggs, according to Burke.

SSRAA is also investigating new release sites for its salmon fry in the Ketchikan area, but among the most obvious choices is near the Klawock River Hatchery: Port Assumption, which already has a permit from the state.

Retirement?

While Burke won’t be working full time for SSRAA - he’s moving back to Marrowstone Island in Washington state - he’ll stay involved with the hatchery’s research with Fish and Game into salmon fitness.

Burke also plans to help with the management of Neets Bay, noting that SSRAA has grown enough that the incoming general manager, David Landis, “has other things to do in the summer than just go to Neets Bay.”

He said he’s comfortable with SSRAA’s direction, particularly because of its higher-than-average number of long-term employees, and Lassiter agreed.

“We can’t control what happens in the ocean, but I think that SSRAA personnel from the bottom to the top have really figured out the best way to do things,” she said. “The reason that I’m not so nervous is David has a really good background in all the stuff besides fisheries. SSRAA is now a pretty big business. There’s a lot of money that goes through there and back into the fleets and southern Southeast as a whole.”

SSRAA and hatcheries in Prince William Sound are working with the state on an expansive, $16 million project to determine hatcheries’ effect on wild salmon stocks.

Burke, a passionate defender but initial skeptic of Alaska’s hatchery program, will continue his role in that research.

“Some of us would contend - and this would really be controversial; people don’t like to hear it - that the hatcheries, if they’re run properly, actually support the wild populations that are around because they add spawners to the systems,” he said. “If they don’t delete the fitness of those fish, that’s exactly what’s going on, particularly if you use local stocks.”

His mind wasn’t always made up, as back in the early days of the FRED Division, some were over-selling the potential of hatcheries.

“I don’t think people in Prince William Sound liked me seeing their papers early in the process,” Burke said, adding that even though he had his doubts, “The best way to do something is not to shoot at it from a distance. Get involved and try to make it right.”

___

Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.ketchikandailynews.com

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