A small assembly of structures along Mountainview Drive has been quietly housing 45,000 young salmon each year for the past 25 or so years.
The McIntyre Creek Salmon Incubation Facility is located midway between Range Road and Porter Creek. Now an educational facility under Yukon College, it was previously operated by Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Northern Research Institute and the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
The incubation facility is not to be confused with a hatchery, guide Jake Montgomery explains.
“We use eggs from other projects that people bring to us and we raise them to be used in those other projects,” he says.
The facility receives fertilized eggs at the “eyed egg” stage, so named because eyes are the first features to develop and can be seen at approximately 50 days, give or take, depending on the water temperature.
Most of the fish come from Whitehorse Rapids, the hatchery run by Yukon Energy, which has been an important contributor to the facility over the years. The fish are released at a young enough age that they imprint on the creek into which they’re released.
The current batch of fish have recently been tagged — 10,000 fish individually tagged in just a few short days — and will be released into Fox Creek as part of a Ta’an Kwach’an project.
After over 50 years without salmon, the successful return of fish to Fox Creek comes slowly, but surely. Montgomery says this project began in 2007 and is just now seeing results.
“In 2013 they had three salmon come back and in 2014, there were nine, and last year there were over 20, so this year, everybody’s pretty hopeful that they’re coming back.”
More importantly, he says, last year was the first year that naturally emerging fry were found, meaning that released fish have then spawned and that next generation of fish are returning naturally.
The incubation facility is able to operate year-round with virtually no power. This is because the tanks are fed by two small natural springs. The water is very clean. Being ground water, there are no fish already living in that water to generate bacteria.
It’s also warm. The temperature fluctuates minimally from 4 degrees in winter to 6 degrees in summer. Because the water is gravity-fed, no pumps are required.
Even the feeding is nearly automated. Staff top up a small box with food once a day. Inside the box, a belt attached to a spring is set to slowly wind down over the next 24 hours, dropping food into the box as it releases. Imagine a tiny pizza oven filled with fish food.
Yukon College is committed to operating the facility as an educational environment where staff — who are all students — along with volunteers get hands-on experience with manager Darrell Otto. The facility also supplies fish to classrooms and conducts tours for school-age children.
This year the facility completed more than $60,000 in upgrades, increasing their capacity from 20,000 salmon eggs to a potential 200,000. Among the upgrades was the installation of a new round tank system, which has resulted in larger fish.
The old oblong tank left the water largely stagnant, while the new round tanks result in a vortex that constantly moves the water and gives the fish a current to swim against.
The next batch of fish will be chum from the dwindling stocks of the Porcupine River. They’ll be fertilized up north, then shipped down to be raised. The fry will be helicoptered back north and released into the Porcupine River, making them possibly the most well-travelled salmon in the world.
For more information about the McIntyre Creek Salmon Incubation Facility call 867-668-8887 or email Science@YukonCollege.yk.ca.