Hatchery celebrates 75 years as Salmon Days returns

October 6, 2012

By David Hayes

NEW — 6 a.m. Oct. 6, 2012

Salmon Days draws an average of 150,000 visitors to the streets of Issaquah. However, over the course of the fall season, between 9,000 and 10,000 students alone journey from all over the Puget Sound region to the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery to learn more about the star of the show.

Celebrating its 75th year in operation, the hatchery has evolved to include more learning opportunities for the young and young-at-heart. Bringing that history lesson to the masses via PowerPoint is Jane Kuechle, hatchery executive director.

The hatchery site actually was once part of the aptly named City Park, connected to downtown Issaquah via a wooden bridge over Issaquah Creek. The park, with its bandstand and speaking platform, played host to holiday celebrations and many a family picnic along the creek.

However, due to the impact of Issaquah’s two biggest turn-of-the-century industries — logging and coal mining — the natural spawning route along Issaquah Creek was nearly wiped out.

To revitalize the salmon population and their natural habitat run from Lake Sammamish to the Pacific Ocean and back, the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery was constructed in 1936 as a federal Works Progress Administration venture.

“The first salmon were trapped in the Green River and were brought here,” Kuechle said.

Efforts expanded over the years to increase spawning efforts, from tripling the size of traps in 1949 to building a feed shop building in 1952-53.

“In the 1980s, there were 18 circular ponds for the salmon to swing around in circles,” Kuechle said. “Now, the ponds have water flowing in one direction to better simulate conditions for salmon swimming upstream.”

During state budget cuts in the early 1990s, the hatchery was marked for elimination. But thanks to the efforts of the city, the Snoqualmie Tribe and a group of volunteers that would grow into what is now the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, Issaquah retained the most visited hatchery in the state. The selling point, Kuechle said, was the educational opportunities.

For example, visitors to the hatchery grounds are greeted by one of Issaquah’s most famous couples — Gilda and Finley, the hatchery’s two coho salmon statues.

Created by artist Tom Jay, many are surprised to learn these 8-foot bronze sculptures are actually based on fossils of salmon from the Ice Age. More than 5 million years ago, similar saber-toothed salmon swam in the Pacific Northwest waters, measuring up to 10 feet long and weighing up to 500 pounds.

Look closely, and a visitor can see Gilda and Finley rest atop a recreated salmon spawning habitat of gravel, boulders, logs and native plants. Zero your attention in even more closely to discover the rocks contain replicas of salmonid fossils and petroglyphs that are approximations of coast Salish rock art dating back nearly 3,000 years.

The sculptures were installed in 1996 and 1998, and funded by grants from the city of Issaquah Arts Commission and FISH.

In the early 2000s, the hatchery underwent a $6.65 million renovation to include a new Watershed Science Center. And in recent years, interactive stations have been installed to further help explain the lifecycle of the salmon while providing a fun learning experience.

Just last year, the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery joined efforts to help save the Lake Sammamish kokanee population.

In the program, Kuechle said the endangered fish are collected from three main creeks that offshoot from Lake Sammamish and are brought to spawn at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery. Then, hatchery employees and FISH members spawn the fish and tend to the eggs until tiny fry can be released into local creeks.

The kokanee spawning program includes limited funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, King County and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

What has Kuechle most excited about the future of the hatchery and salmon is that the state recently allocated $4 million to update the fish ladder technology upstream from the hatchery along Issaquah Creek. Plans are to implement the designs next year.

Of all that Kuechle had to learn to present the history and lifecycle of the salmon, she said she is most amazed by how beneficial salmon are to the watershed.

“When bears and the like take the fish to their habitat, nutrients from the salmon are found way beyond the stream spread back through the watershed,” Kuechle said.

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