Salmon survival plummets

TULALIP — The Tulalip Tribes released 12 million salmon from their hatchery this year — including a record 1.3 million coho — and are raising a bumper crop of fingerlings to be released in 2013.

These salmon help preserve wild fish by providing other salmon for people to catch and eat. But when it comes to salmon survival, the tribes are swimming upstream, Tulalip officials say.

The ocean survival rates for both hatchery and wild salmon in the Puget Sound region have taken a nosedive the past few years, according to the tribes.

Last year was the worst return rate ever for Snohomish River basin Chinook salmon, both hatchery and wild, said Mike Crewson, fisheries enhancement biologist for the tribes. The four worst seasons ever have come in the past seven years, he said.

Fish in other parts of the inland waters in Washington, British Columbia and the Columbia River aren’t doing much better, tribal officials said.

“We’re losing ground,” said Ray Fryberg, the Tulalips’ director of natural and cultural resources. “The task is overwhelming.”

Several different runs of salmon in Western Washington, most prominently Puget Sound Chinook, have been listed in recent years as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. While they appeared to be bouncing back around 2002 and 2003, return rates started tanking around 2005 for both hatchery and wild salmon, Crewson said.

Tribal officials trace the problem to a combination of factors. Pollution, climate change, loss of habitat and increased consumption of salmon by seals and sea lions are all playing a part, they say.

In addition, so many agencies have a hand in fisheries management that there’s been no cohesive strategy. This could be changing, officials said.

Northwest tribes are pressing the federal government to take more control of efforts to restore salmon and enforce the Endangered Species Act, in an initiative called Treaty Rights at Risk.

“The salmon don’t have a voice,” Fryberg said. “We are the voice.”

The Tulalips also are participating in two recently formed study groups of scientists and fishery managers from government agencies and tribes in Washington and British Columbia. They aim to study the scientific conditions in the waterways that are causing the problems in the first place and ways to improve fish returns, said Michael Schmidt, program director for Long Live the Kings, a Seattle salmon advocacy group that is helping organize the effort.

Complicating matters are the fact that some individual fish runs, such as Mount Baker sockeye, are doing well, experts say. Also, conditions in the ocean continue to shift and change, and a string of warm water La Nina winters threw the food chains out of whack, Crewson said. There are many theories about what’s happening, he said.

“We really don’t have a good handle on what’s going on,” Schmidt said.

The study groups are communicating and hope to come up with a plan of action by early next year, Schmidt said.

Meanwhile, the Tulalips are releasing the fish as fast as they can raise them. They start with eggs harvested from fish raised both at their own hatchery and at the state’s Wallace River Hatchery near Sultan, said Jesse Rude, assistant manager of the Bernie “Kai Kai” Gobin Salmon Hatchery at Tulalip. Chinook, coho and chum salmon are raised at the hatchery.

Starting in the fall, the eggs are fertilized and incubated for several months in trays. Both while in the trays and after being hatched, the tribes are able to mark the fish as coming from Tulalip by changing the water temperature several times. This creates unique ring patterns, similar to the rings on a tree, in the fish’s otolith, a bony structure in the inner ear.

When the fry are able to swim they’re moved to ponds where they’re fed to continue to grow. After another month or so there, they’re sent through pipelines into larger ponds. The coho salmon will spend more than a year there, while the Chinook grow quickly and will be released the following spring.

A year before release, the young salmon — still only two to three inches long — have their adipose fins clipped so they can easily be identified as hatchery fish for anyone who may catch them. Limits are often different for hatchery fish than wild ones. The adipose fin is a small fin on the fish’s back near the tail.

Up until 12 years ago, this was done entirely by hand. Now, the fingerlings are piped through sophisticated machinery inside a $1.4 million van owned by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Each fish is sorted by size and funneled into a clamp that closes and holds it in place while its fin is clipped. Then it’s sent out through another tube back into one of the hatchery’s ponds. Staff are able to watch each fish go through the process on one of several monitors.

The fisheries commission owns two of the vans and sends them out to tribal hatcheries as part of a cooperative agreement. About 40 to 50 of the vans are in operation nationwide, said Evan Weisdepp, who was supervising operations in the van at the Tulalip hatchery Tuesday.

Some fish, less than 10 percent, are either too large or too small to go through the machine. They’re piped to another tub from which they’re delicately plucked by hand to have their fins clipped.

The van’s machine can clip 60,000 fins a day, compared to 5,000 to 8,000 for one person by hand, Weisdepp said.

Also, some of the fish are fitted with computer chip-like nose tags that have detailed information about the fish, such as where it was raised and its brood stock, that’s entered into a state database when the fish is caught. State inspectors are supposed to check 20 percent of commercial fish catches and 10 percent of sport catches at the dock, where they scan fish for the nose tags, Crewson said.

When the young hatchery salmon are ready, they’re trucked down to a holding area in Tulalip Bay where they are acclimated to the mix of fresh and saltwater there before being released into the wild — hopefully to return and spawn.

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