Colville Tribes open $51 million fish hatchery

Water conditions closer to natural are designed to support salmon runs

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Members of the Confederated Colville Tribes prepare a salmon feast Thursday to dedicate a new fish hatchery in Bridgeport. The hatchery will release nearly 3 million salmon to the wild each year. It's the first to be designed and built under new scientific recommendations for improving hatchery operations with conditions closer to natural streams, to improve fish survival and reproduction.

BRIDGEPORT — The $51 million hatchery near Chief Joseph Dam will help to rebuild naturally spawning salmon runs in areas where they were damaged by the construction and operation of Columbia River hydropower dams, and allow for the reintroduction of one species — spring chinook — in the Okanogan River, where they were extirpated decades ago.

In turn, the hatchery will boost opportunities for salmon harvests for members of the Colville Confederated Tribes, who retain fishing rights in the region but have seen the supply of fish dwindle with construction of the dams and with sport fishing.

The tribes’ elder fishermen tell of fish swimming upstream so thickly they were nearly crawling over one another in the water, and tribal fishermen working off scaffolding on the river bank with dip nets and spears.

“We’ve been denied good fisheries for a lot of years. I’ve seen the devastation on our reservation,” said John A. Smith, a tribal member who helped to create the tribes’ Fish and Wildlife Department in 1976.

Smith served as the agency’s first director and went on to work with 37 Northwest tribes as the Bonneville Power Administration’s first tribal liaison. Now retired, Smith said salmon once accounted for 50 percent of Indians’ diet — sustenance that was lost with construction of the dams.

There are more than 400 dams in the Columbia River Basin. Fish ladders have been added to improve survival rates, but they are not available at all dams. On the Columbia itself, fish passage ends at Chief Joseph Dam just south of the Colville reservation.

The hatchery’s goal is to release 2.9 million fish annually — 2 million summer chinook and 900,000 spring chinook. All will be marked as hatchery fish and be subject to harvest in the Columbia and in the Pacific Ocean.

In 2009, a scientific review panel released recommendations after a multi-year review, mandated by Congress, to improve hatchery operations throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Chief Joseph Hatchery is the first designed and built under those recommendations.

Under the recommendations, the hatchery will draw water from the reservoir behind the dam, Rufus Woods Lake, to ensure that water temperatures fluctuate as they would for fish in the wild.

Fish reared in hatcheries that draw well water, which can be too warm in the winter months, have a higher incidence of “jacking,” where the fish mature too quickly. Those fish tend to cut short their stay in the ocean, returning in two or three years instead of the normal three to five years, and they tend to predominantly become male fish, hurting reproduction efforts.

“The bash against hatcheries has always been that they’re just production facilities and they don’t replicate nature,” said Pat Phillips, the tribes’ hatchery manager.