Issaquah Salmon Hatchery spawns chinook, coho

November 6, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

FISH docent Grace Reamer holds a handful of chinook salmon eggs for students at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery on Oct. 30. By Greg Farrar

Issaquah Salmon Hatchery workers and volunteers sloshed around in 40-degree water Oct. 30, as the annual effort to spawn coho salmon started again.

Teams from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery plan to collect 1.2 million coho eggs. The process to spawn coho started about a month after hatchery workers and volunteers started spawning chinook. In the resulting effort, teams collected 2.2 million eggs.

FISH Executive Director Jane Kuechle and John Kugen, hatchery foreman, said the partnership between the nonprofit organization and the state agency is essential for the survival of Issaquah Creek salmon — and the hatchery.

The hatchery, a fixture in downtown Issaquah for 75 years, spawns and raises coho and chinook.

State fisheries experts expected a more robust chinook salmon return but a smaller coho salmon return to Puget Sound streams in 2012.

“It comes and goes,” Kugen said. “The best one that we had that I can remember was 2001, when we had 18,000 coho and then a couple years ago we had 13,000. Coho come back in bigger numbers because they’re released as bigger smolts. They’re about 7 or 8 inches long, so there’s less predation on them than chinook.”

Spawning is difficult physical labor, and the process requires about 20 people to complete. The hatchery crew relies on FISH volunteers to complete the task.

“We couldn’t do it by ourselves,” Kugen said. “We have to have volunteers.”

The task is especially difficult as hatchery workers and volunteers spawn chinook in early autumn. The hulking fish require a steady hand.

“You have to have people who can not only lift 50 pounds or 60 pounds, but corral a wiggling 50 or 60 pounds,” Kuechle said.

Robust forecast for fish

By the numbers

The chinook run in Issaquah Creek is done. Issaquah Salmon Hatchery crews and Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery members spawned chinook starting Sept. 25.

Chinook

  • 4,500 — chinook trapped
  • 2.2 million — chinook eggs collected
  • 1,000 adult — chinook allowed upstream to spawn

Coho

Hatchery crews and volunteers started spawning coho salmon Oct. 30.

  • 4,000 — coho trapped
  • 200 — coho allowed upstream to spawn
  • 1.2 million — target for coho egg collection

Source: Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery

The initial step is to determine if a fish is “ripe,” or ready for spawning. Participants check fishes’ bellies to see if eggs inside a female feel loose, and to see if a male releases a milky substance called milt upon handling.

If a fish is ready for spawning, crews deliver a blow to the hand to dispatch the fish and then collect the eggs or milt. The material is later combined, and crews raise the resulting fry in trays and, later, ponds on the hatchery grounds.

Some eggs go to co-ops and schools, including campuses participating in the Salmon in the Classroom program. FISH spearheaded the effort to salvage the program after state budget cuts nearly ended the tradition in 2010.

Overall, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife forecast released in February called for 732,363 coho to return to local streams — or 249,000 fewer coho than the 2011 forecast.

The activity is a return to normal after lean coho returns in recent years. In 2010, Issaquah hatchery teams trapped only 475 coho. The inexplicable shortfall prompted the hatchery to turn to another state hatchery in Snohomish County for about 750,000 eggs to send to schools and co-ops.

The projected total for the Lake Washington watershed, including Issaquah Creek, is 17,598 fish.

Officials predicted for the summer and autumn chinook salmon returns to Puget Sound to total about 224,165 fish — fewer than the 243,000 chinook projected for 2011.

The chinook return is comprised mostly of hatchery fish. The projected total return to the Issaquah hatchery amounted to 4,728 chinook, or a little more than the 4,500 fish trapped at the hatchery.

The annual forecast announcement is the initial indicator of salmon returns to the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery along Issaquah Creek.

In order to formulate the annual forecasts, scientists measure the number of wild smolts, or juvenile salmon, departing freshwater at locations around Puget Sound. Hatcheries also record the number of juvenile salmon released each year.

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