BRIDGEPORT — 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 Tuesday — 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.
“This is an example of the tribe taking charge of its own destiny,” Col. Bruce Estok, the Corps’ Seattle District Commander, said after the tour. “This has got to be the best hatchery in the state or the Pacific Northwest right now. We’re proud to work with you on it.”
Northwestern Division Commander Col. Anthony Funkhouser added, “It’s not just about the tribe. There are so many other people who will benefit from this project,” including all the fishermen from the ocean clear up to Bridgeport, as well as several other American Indian tribes with whom the Colvilles are sharing their returns.
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.
Joe Peone, director of the Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife Department, said of the 2.9 million chinook raised at the facility, the tribe is expecting between 12,000 and 15,000 chinook salmon to return in surplus of what they need for production.
Before they get there, fishermen all along the Columbia River system will have an opportunity to fish for these hatchery salmon, he noted.
Once it’s opened, the hatchery will include an interpretive center with information about the hatchery and Colville tribes, and a walking trail that loops through the property.
Visitors might also see tribal fishermen using traditional dip nets and hoop nets from new dock-like scaffolds to be built along the shoreline.
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.
The project also includes two acclimation ponds at Omak and Riverside, each of which can rear up to 400,000 chinook for release into the Okanogan River. A weir on the lower part of the Okanogan will help the tribe capture hatchery fish returning there.
Sixty-six people are currently employed on the hatchery’s construction work, and once it’s finished, it will employ 11 full-time workers, many of whom are tribal members with recently-completed college degrees.
Chief Joseph Hatchery is one of four hatcheries authorized for construction when Grand Coulee Dam eliminated salmon from surrounding rivers on the reservation. The Winthrop, Entiat and Leavenworth hatcheries were all completed.
Tribal chairman John Sirois said there’s a huge excitement among tribal members about the fishing opportunities as well as the distribution of surplus fish — both fresh and frozen — to members and other tribes.
He said he often fishes at the Leavenworth hatchery, but now will have opportunities closer to his home in Omak.
“We just can’t wait until it gets opened,” he said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512