New hatchery holds promise for healthier salmon

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BRIDGEPORT, Wash. — The first salmon hatchery on the Columbia River designed with the latest scientific recommendations on how to avoid weakening the naturally spawning populations is 80 percent complete and will begin producing fish in the spring.

Promised to American Indian tribes decades ago, the Chief Joseph Hatchery is located directly across the river from Chief Joseph Dam — where each year salmon still return year, only to bump their heads against the massive concrete structure that prevents them from continuing their journey to spawn in tributaries northeast of Bridgeport.

Unlike the dams below it, there is no fish passage at the second-largest power-producing dam on the Columbia, second only to Grand Coulee Dam above it.

But with this hatchery, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation will bring thousands of fish back to a corner of their 1.4 million-acre reservation below the dam, where they can gather surplus fish, and provide tribal members and others across the region with new fishing opportunities.

The $49 million hatchery is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. It will produce some 1.9 million spring and summer Chinook each year.

Tribal leaders and officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers toured the facility Oct. 16 — from the ladders where returning hatchery salmon will be captured, through the incubation and rearing stations, to the runways and holding ponds on this 15-acre site owned by the Corps.

Depending on returns, fish managers believe that tens of thousands of additional summer Chinook will be available for harvest in the Pacific Ocean from Vancouver to Alaska, and in the lower and upper Columbia River as a result of the hatchery.

Hatchery manager Pat Phillips said what’s special about this project is that it’s the first hatchery designed under new specifications laid out by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group.

Under Congressional direction, the panel of independent scientists analyzed hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest and came up with recommendations for preserving the wild genetics of naturally spawning salmon while allowing for hatchery production.

Phillips said among other measures, at least three-fourths of the returning hatchery salmon will be harvested, to prevent a large number of hatchery fish from genetically mixing with naturally-spawned fish.

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