Oct. 15–BURLINGTON — Salmon are a huge part of the community in Skagit County, with commercial fishing that plays a role in the local economy, recreational fishing that draws locals and tourists alike and tribal culture.
Over the years, native Chinook salmon populations have declined, and some are now protected under the Endangered Species Act, which bans their catch.
In northern Puget Sound, two state Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries produce supplementary Chinook populations. The Samish hatchery, with holding ponds on the Samish River and a main facility on Friday Creek, is the largest.
Chinook are raised, released and harvested at the hatchery to support commercial and recreational fishing, as well as fulfill treaty rights with area tribes.
“The reality is, Samish hatchery is kind of the bread and butter of the northern Puget Sound fishery, as far as what’s available for commercial and recreational fishing. … What exists without Samish you’re not able to access — a lot of them are ESA-listed spring Chinook,” said Kevin Clark, a manager of four Fish and Wildlife hatcheries, including Samish.
While protected Chinook tend to move upriver in the spring, the hatchery-bred Chinook spawn in the fall. As they make their way upstream mid-September through October and crowd the Samish hatchery collection center where their eggs and milk are harvested, they make for many wet work days, training and education opportunities.
The fish are monitored daily and harvested a minimum of three days a week during the six-week season, depending on the influx. The hatchery has three hired hands. Bellingham Technical College’s Fisheries and Aquaculture program students frequently assist with hatchery operations for course credit.
Once a year, students from Burlington-Edison High School also pitch in to sort fish in the pond.
A video posted Oct. 8 on the Skagit Valley Herald’s Facebook page shows a number of salmon jumping in the river below the hatchery’s holding ponds. The filmmaker contacted the Skagit Valley Herald Oct. 9, but did not want to give his name.
In the video, he says the fish had been kept in holding for more than 10 days and were beating themselves against wooden planks and cement walls at the facility, killing themselves trying to go upstream. He questioned whether the fish were being handled properly.
Monday there were far fewer fish in the stream than are seen in the video. Fish and Wildlife officials said the film was taken during the high-density peak of the season.
The agency publishes weekly escapement reports online that tally the number of fish returning to the hatchery through the season, and a new report was released Oct. 9. According to the reports, the hatchery collected 2.93 million eggs between Oct. 1 and Oct. 9. More than 2,500 Chinook were collected during that time, along with 695 coho released upstream where they naturally spawn and die.
“That indicates the amount of people, presence and work being done,” Clark said.
Out of 7,821 Chinook collected through the season as of the Oct. 9 report, mortality tallied 372.
“Mortality is inevitable,” Clark said. “The amount of mortality we have for those numbers is pretty low.”
In turn, each year the hatchery sends out more than 4 million smolts; about 85 of them weigh o n e p o u n d . Th e f i s h migrate to estuarine environments where fresh and salt water meet before returning upriver to spawn after about three years, when they weigh in at about 12 pounds, Clark said.
The goal this year is to collect 6 million eggs to restock the fishery demand. More fish than are needed are returning to the river, but all of them are collected and removed to protect recovering native species.
“We want all the hatchery fish out of the system. We don’t want them competing with native fish,” Clark said.
Bruce Wade, who has been at the hatchery for 15 years, operated a slide Monday called a weir, with a series of levers, doors and tubes to direct native fish upriver or hatchery Chinook into processing — identifying the different species at a glance.
By 10 a.m. Monday, he tallied another 291 coho released upriver.
Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@ skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel