Tulalip hatchery aids salmon recovery | SLIDESHOW

TULALIP — In spite of ever-increasing releases of salmon from their hatchery, the Tulalip Tribes are facing the same unexplained diminishing returns as are occurring throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The Bernie “Kai Kai” Gobin Salmon Hatchery’s total release of 12 million salmon in 2012 includes a record release of 1.3 million Coho salmon, which hatchery assistant manager Jesse Rude deemed an impressive survival rate and attributed to the expertise of their workers and continual improvements in the co-management and recovery of state salmon stocks.

At the same time, Mike Crewson, fisheries enhancement biologist for the Tulalip Tribes, explained that both hatchery and wild Snohomish River basin Chinook salmon had their worst return rate ever last year, continuing a decline in return rates for both hatchery and wild salmon that began in 2005, after apparent recoveries in 2002 and 2003, that has yielded the four worst seasons ever in the past seven years.

“Within the past 10 years, our hatchery survival rates have constantly gone up,” Rude said. “When I started here in 1996, our survival rates were around 85 to 90 percent, and within the past three to four years, they’ve gone up to 96 percent. Our survival release rates keep going up, but our returns aren’t.”

The Tulalip salmon hatchery’s ocean survival rates are following similar patterns to fish throughout the inland waters of Washington state, the Columbia River and even British Columbia. The Northwest Indian Fish Commission has helped verify these survival rates by marking millions of salmon this season alone. All of the Tulalip hatchery’s Chum salmon are genetically marked, while all of its Chinook and Coho salmon are otolith-marked.

“By changing the water temperature during the early stages of their growth, it creates distinct rings around their ear bones, like the rings of a tree,” Rude said.

“The patterns of how long they’re chilled create almost like bar codes, that are different according to the hatchery, the season and the year,” Crewson said. “There’s an international database with millions of combinations to make sure nobody duplicates each other.”

Crewson and Kurt Nelson, environmental division manager for the Tulalip Tribes, recall tagging salmon by hand as recently as 12 years ago, but now, fingerling salmon have their adipose fins clipped by a sorting machine inside the $1.4 million van that the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission parks next to the salmon ponds at the Tulalip hatchery. These fingerlings have their adipose fins clipped a year before they’re released, so that those who catch them can identify them as hatchery fish without having to kill them and read their otolith or genetic markings.

In spite of the greater efficiency afforded by this staff-monitored automation, Tom Murdoch and Ray Fryberg identified several factors that pose greater challenges to the survival of hatchery salmon when they’re released. Murdoch, executive director of the Adopt A Stream Foundation, sees the diminishing salmon returns as a symptom of poorly planned urban and suburban development. To mitigate the damage already done to salmon habitat, he advised that parking lots be made with porous pavement and houses be built atop concrete piers rather than digging into the ground below.

As for Fryberg, director of natural and cultural resources for the Tulalip Tribes, he expressed a kinship with fellow fishermen, from Canada and Alaska to Oregon and Idaho, who have told him that they too see themselves as losing ground on this issue.

“Back in the 1970s, we didn’t think the fish would ever go away, but the hatchery is the only thing that’s preserved our lifestyle since then,” said Fryberg, who pointed out that federally protected seals eat many of the salmon that are released. “We’re the voice of the salmon, because they don’t have a voice of their own.”

While Fryberg suggested examining the pockets of successful salmon recovery within the Puget Sound region to determine “what’s being done right,” Nelson held up restoration projects such as the Qwuloolt estuary in Marysville as another way forward. Both agreed with Crewson’s assessment that the federal government is “uniquely positioned to coordinate the responsibilities” of protecting and restoring such habitats.

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