Raising millions of salmon to help feed our Southern Resident orcas

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. -- A light rain is falling onto the Clear Creek Fish Hatchery, as a noisy trailer parked between two concrete holding ponds sends sounds into the forested landscape on JBLM land.

The chinook salmon being raised here might hold the key to keeping our resident orcas in the Puget Sound for generations to come. The fish is the favorite food of the Southern Resident killer whale. Millions in the next few weeks will be flooding into Puget Sound, thanks to the hard work of fish hatcheries around Washington state. But, all this effort might still not be enough.

“They look good,” says Joe Coutu. “Very uniform, very healthy fish.”

This is busy season for Coutu and his team.

“Here on-site, we do 3 to 4 million fish in a four- to five-week range.”

Coutu is a Washington State Fish and Wildlife biologist. He runs this loud, high-tech fish trailer parked at this hatchery behind locked gates on JBLM land in rural Pierce County.

Coutu points us to the large tank nearest the window of the trailer. A bucket of small fish spills into what is essentially a giant stainless steel sink.

"Right over here,” says Coutu, "we’re crowding them here so they can be pumped up to the sorter.”

On this day, the computer is using special cameras to measure each fish down to the tenth of a millimeter. Then it shoots them off in smaller holding sinks with their like-sized siblings.

“This is a much safer way to pass more fish,” say Coutu, adding that the less manual handling of the fish, the less stressed they become during this process.

Down the line, when they’re in small basins the size of a small shallow bathroom sink, the fish move toward the black plastic panels at one side. Coutu says in this part of their life cycle they’re drawn to the darkness.

The panels lead to a chute where the machine will perform a minor, but crucial, surgery. In just two and a half seconds, the machine will snip their tiny adipose fin. That’s the small fin behind the main dorsal fin. Cameras confirm before and after the cut it it was successful.

"It’s very important that we do a good job,” says Coutu.

The lack of an adipose fin lets anglers know they’re catching a hatchery fish— not a wild one. These fish will go through this trailer once again to get radio tagged so the Nisqually Tribe, that runs this facility, will get data about where their fish go.

“And also that will make an impact on wild fish, which are returning to the spawning grounds.”

For these millions of fish, they’re growing about a millimeter a day, when they get to about five inches long about this week— they’ll be released. First they'll go into Clear Creek and they’ll make their way into the Nisqually River, which leads to Puget Sound. The luckiest of them, in two or three years, will come back here to spawn again.

"We release  3 1/2 million chinook,” says David Troutt, the natural resources director for the Nisqually Tribe. “It’s really a numbers game. So the more fish out there, the more that will come back.”

Their hatchery is one of the oldest and largest breeders of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Without it, Troutt says, there would be near zero in the Nisqually Basin.

He says wild chinook went extinct in this estuary in the 1960s. And even though they and other hatcheries will release millions upon millions of fish of our resident orcas favorite food this spring— Troutt says it’s still not enough.

“Everything gets a bite of them from marine mammals to -- our fish get caught in Alaska -- Bristol Bay, they get caught off the west coast of Vancouver Island. They get caught in Puget Sound. So everybody gets a little piece of them.”

And Troutt says Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order this spring calling for more hatchery fish, among other directives, won’t be the key to saving our Puget Sound orcas.

"There’s only so much space in the river,” says Troutt. “There’s only so much space in the estuary, and in Puget Sound. So how you use that space is really important.”

Trott co-authored a paper just out that says our estuaries are already full. Pumping more hatchery stock into the rivers could squeeze out wild ones.

“The key to making more fish is to make more estuary—is to make more habitat.”

He says one example is the way Interstate 5 currently cuts across the Nisqually wetlands. Troutt says it acts like a dam right now. Putting the busy highway on piers would allow the tides to once again flow naturally and turn acres back into productive fish habitat for the first time in decades.

He says thousands more acres of possible habitat lie along the Skagit, Nooksack, and Snohomish Rivers, too.

"We have time, but the clock is definitely ticking,” says Troutt. "Our pace of habitat restoration is too slow. If we want to keep resident killer whale population, if we want to have fish for us, we really need to invest in habitat restoration and that’s the real key."

In the meantime, important work continues on this year’s brood of chinook. Inside the noisy trailer, the fish that don’t get sorted correctly by computer end up in this last steel tub filled with anesthetized water. The fish here are handled manually to get their fin clipped. The water is numbingly cold too. The hours are long for Coutu and his team.

"We work some long days and some long shifts. But that’s our busy season."

And while it might not be enough long-term — doing less is not an option for the tribe that  views saving the orca and endangered salmon as both a cultural and spiritual obligation. The $750,000  the tribe spends annually to do this work is considered here an investment for future generations.

And when these workers are done with the two runs to cut and tag the chinook, they’ll move to the next hatchery. Their efforts could end up saving an ecosystem humans have pushed to almost a breaking point.