Catching a legacy as Issaquah Salmon Hatchery turns 75

April 24, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Vicki Hahn (above, left), FISH master docent, uses hatchery sculptures Gillda and Finley to explain how salmon spawn for Lika Clark, 9, her brother Peter Ginter, 13, and their mother Jessica Ginter. By Greg Farrar

The humble buildings along a downtown street and the simple bridge across Issaquah Creek do not call out for attention, but the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery is iconic nonetheless — so iconic, the hatchery and the salmon raised in manmade ponds serve as symbols for Issaquah and the region.

The hatchery opened along the creek 75 years ago, and to celebrate the milestone, citizens, environmentalists and leaders gathered at the site April 22, Earth Day, to reflect on the changes the unassuming hatchery unleashed on Issaquah.

“The salmon is an icon to more than just Issaquah — it’s an icon for the Northwest,” King County Deputy Executive Fred Jarrett said at the anniversary celebration. “The greatest gift that it’s given us is the ability to focus, to begin to improve the quality of the water and the habitat so that we can retain that icon. This facility is incredibly important in making that happen.”

The hatchery is more than a birthplace for chinook and coho salmon, officials said. The facility also defines the community.

“We always hear that salmon need cold, clean water,” said Sara LaBorde, special assistant to the director at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Salmon need hard work, good decisions and effective funding. We have to keep watersheds intact, restore habitat, responsibly manage this place, harvest these hatchery fish — and all of those combine together to build strong, naturally reproducing salmon.”

‘Hatchery brought back the salmon’

What is FISH?

Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, or FISH, formed in the early 1990s as state officials eyed the hatchery for closure.

The nonprofit organization is dedicated to the preservation of the historic hatchery. Through educational programs in school classrooms and at the hatchery, FISH educates the community about the salmon lifecycle and inspires stewardship of the Puget Sound watershed.

FISH also salvaged the Salmon in the Classroom program for schools in the Issaquah School District after the state scuttled funding for the program amid 2010 budget cuts.

Former Issaquah Mayor Rowan Hinds formulated the acronym for the organization en route to Olympia to lobby officials to preserve the hatchery.

“I’ve always liked acronyms, particularly if they have a meaning,” he said. “I always felt that if the acronym can kind of match what the organization was, you had a lot better feeling for the organization.”

What was the Works Progress Administration?

The federal agency responsible for constructing the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery in 1936-37 stemmed from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives.

The jobs program — the largest New Deal agency — completed   public works projects across the United States. In addition to the hatchery, Works Progress Administration Crews built Issaquah sewer lines and a community center in Preston.

Elsewhere in Washington, agency crews constructed the massive Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.

The celebration on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon attracted guests to feed trout, dissect a salmon and release salmon fry into the creek.

Beyond the activities, speakers used the occasion to highlight environmental priorities.

“It is fitting that we celebrate” hatchery history “on Earth Day, a time when we can pause and reflect on man’s impact to our planet,” Issaquah Councilwoman Eileen Barber said.

The events at the hatchery occurred on the 42nd Earth Day observance. Problems elsewhere in the United States and closer to Issaquah started to change residents’ behavior.

“In 1970, our country was in the middle of an environmental crisis,” Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger said.

In a “Silent Spring” moment tailored for the local area, Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery Executive Director Jane Kuechle noted the damage to Issaquah Creek after decades of coalmining and logging in the watershed. Logs sent downstream scoured silt from the creek bed. Tailings, or leftovers from coalmining, polluted the water.

Then, in the years after the hatchery opened, salmon started to return in stronger numbers.

“There essentially weren’t any viable salmon in the stream, so the hatchery really brought back the salmon to Issaquah Creek,” she said in a separate interview.

In 1936, Works Progress Administration crews started to build the hatchery complex on a former city park and opened the next year. The public works projects completed by the agency offered jobs amid the Great Depression.

“The hatchery came from a time when people were desperate for jobs,” Frisinger said in a separate interview. “The economy was in horrible, horrible shape. This gave them an opportunity to do something that allowed them to continue to live and have shelter and food, and a sense of self respect.”

Before the hatchery restored the historic Issaquah Creek salmon runs, even the construction project changed community.

“Just the fact that it was built here, the choice to construct this thing had an impact on the community,” Issaquah History Museums Executive Director Maniez said in a separate interview.

‘Issaquah hatchery is the linchpin’

The hatchery started operations in 1937. The original salmon stocks for the hatchery originated in the Green River. Early hatchery crews spawned chinook and coho salmon, as well as steelhead.

The hatchery concentrates chinook and coho nowadays, and serves a key role in a program to restore the dwindling Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon population.

“The Issaquah hatchery is the linchpin in the supplementation program. If that hatchery was not located where it is, we would have a much harder job in running a supplementation program,” Hans Berge, a county environmental scientist and a Lake Sammamish kokanee expert, said in a recent interview. “They’ve bent over backwards to accommodate kokanee.”

The hatchery confronted a grim future, too, in the early 1990s. State leaders eyed the hatchery for closure amid a budget crisis. Issaquah leaders and residents rallied to preserve the structure.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to operate the hatchery. The city-owned hatchery land is leased to the state for 99 years.

FISH formed in 1994 to leads tours during the autumn salmon runs, and spearheads educational programs in school classrooms and at the facility — the most-visited state-run hatchery.

“The hatchery brought back the salmon and the salmon are what you identify with Issaquah,” Kuechle said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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One Response to “Catching a legacy as Issaquah Salmon Hatchery turns 75”

  1. docc123 on April 25th, 2012 8:25 am

    Many years ago I lived in Issaquah across from the creek where the trailer is or was on the eat side of town. I remember the Sockeye days and wonder if they still have them. I also remember a trail that went to teh creek where and an old bridge crossed the creek above a small dam. I used to walk down below the dam in the fall and watch steelhead, searun Cuttroat and salmon go up the fishladder that was inplace there. I remmeber on the other side a the dam had eroded so that there was a small area about 3’x5′ puddle. Occasioally a fish would jump into it and end up dieing there as there was no escape. For a while (allegedly that is) I would pick up the fish and throw them back into the creek . On occasion though (allegedly that is ) I would pick one out and take it home to cook up for the wife and kids. I dont feel bad about it nor guilty nor do I think I should. It’s my opinion had I not been ther to save litteraly hundreds of fish they wouldnt have survived.
    I wonder if the dam is still there and if fish are still getting caught in the puddle on north side of it.

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