Tribes work to build a better fish

A worker tries to grab a slippery Coho at the Wallace River fish hatchery near Sultan on Nov. 14.  The fish were rounded up in a net and then snared by hand to harvest their wild DNA for use at the Tulalip salmon hatchery. -
A worker tries to grab a slippery Coho at the Wallace River fish hatchery near Sultan on Nov. 14. The fish were rounded up in a net and then snared by hand to harvest their wild DNA for use at the Tulalip salmon hatchery.
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TULALIP The Bernie Kai Kai Gobin Fish Hatchery might be the one place on the Tulalip Reservation where the odds are stacked against the house.
Of the 11 million salmon released into Tulalip Bay each year, only 117,000 will eventually return after spending several years in the ocean. So, last week, Tribal members went upstream to a major tributary of the Snohomish River to help increase those odds.
At the Wallace River Fish Hatchery teams of workers harvested wild Coho salmon eggs and sperm to use for a new batch of fish that will be better able to withstand the many challenges they face in rivers and ocean.
At the state-run hatchery an assembly line formed as workers pulled the mature salmon out of a net, quickly stunning them to death, dividing the wriggling carcasses by gender and then harvesting the eggs from the females, and milking the males.
Tony Matta is a Tulalip who quickly filled a yellow bucket with the bright orange eggs; slitting the fishs body down the middle, and deftly stripping the egg cache from her belly. It took the eggs of only 17 fish to completely fill a 3.5 gallon bucket. A few hours work would yield 16 buckets, weighing about 30 pounds each.
At the other side of the operation, Tribal members George Jones and Dennis Hegnes were milking the sperm from the males into clear plastic pouches. Co-worker DeShawn Joseph then took the pouches and used a hose to inject oxygen in the pouch. That would give the sperm enough air to survive the 50 mile journey downstream. That journey would be made by truck, in a cooler, to the Tulalip hatchery which will serve as a kitchen where they would be used in a better salmon recipe.
Tribal fish biologists said they are working to increase the variety and amount of DNA that hatchery salmon contain. The wild fish develop a much broader base of genetic information that helps them cope with the rigors of freshwater, saltwater, temperature and flow variations, and much more. Many wild salmon are more resistant to disease and pests, and the Tulalip hatchery is fusing that DNA into this years batch of Coho.
Thats necessary because hatchery fish have become the main source for recreational and Indian fishing, instead of the supplement to wild runs, as it was intended when the state hatchery on the Skykomish River system was built 100 years ago. Wild runs have suffered from overfishing and habitat degradation; and yet they still have many genetic advantages So the Nov. 14 exercise fertilized almost a million Coho eggs 916,595 to be exact to be released into Tulalip Bay after about two years of growth in the hatchery. The breaks hit hard even before that happens, as only two-thirds of that number will spawn and be available for release, or about 614,000 immature salmon.
Workers harvested 300 females and 150 males that day: combined with an earlier batch they harvested a total of 828 adult Coho; 550 females and 278 males, netting a total of 1.7 million eggs. If all goes well 1.2 million of those will be released but only 72,000 will ever return to the bay, according to Tribal fisheries enhancement biologist Mike Crewson.
Thats the reason for the trip upstream; to collect some better ingredients, to make a better salmon.
We can make our hatchery fish smarter, Crewson said.
About seven years ago hatcheries in the state, both tribal and non-tribal, began reforming their operations, according to Doug Hatfield of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. He manages the Cascade complex of hatcheries that includes most of the area ringing Seattle.
Researchers over the last few decades have been able to pin-down the advantages wild salmon have over their hatchery cousins. Wild fish endure the bumps and bruises, the exposure to the elements, predators and disease that hatchery fish miss, and over time those wild fish can develop disease resistance, adapt or acclimatize themselves to those challenges. Hatchery fish have it easy, and so they dont. In the end they are more vulnerable to those problems, and Hatfield said fishery managers have started to adapt as well, and have made many changes to their operating practices.
The Tribes have gotten the message.
Its something to our advantage to improve how hatcheries operate, said Daryl Williams, director of the Tulalip Department of the Environment.
The Tribes went to end of the line last week to demonstrate their commitment. At Sunset Falls on the South Fork of the Skykomish River visitors were shown the elaborate fish trap built by the state. The falls are one of three impassable barriers on the river, this one 51 miles upstream from Puget Sound. Here is one spot where wild salmon are gathered to provide wild DNA for hatchery fish. Those broodstock are captured and then trucked to the Wallace River facility. Because there are 120 miles of river above the falls that can host salmon, some of the fish are trucked around the falls and released.
For the Tribes the goal is to produce a better fish, just a winemaker might blend grapes to create a better Chardonnay. But vineyards dont face the centuries of habitat degradation fisheries do, and the Tribes want people to realize how important the issue is. A century ago tribal canoes paddled upstream to provide the first wild eggs to the Wallace River hatchery. Now those hatchery fish are the main staple for Puget Sound, and the Tribes are improving their hatchery fish to be able to meet those challenges.

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