Restoring the Lake Washington Salmon Fishery

Cedar River sockeye (photo from bikingbiz.com)

After twenty years of research, planning, litigation, and finally construction, the new sockeye hatchery on the Cedar River finally opened this month.  Wait, we are celebrating a salmon hatchery?  Aren’t hatcheries one of the villains of the salmon story?

Yes, hatcheries have been one of the ‘4H’ identified factors of salmon decline, along with habitat loss, hydropower dams, and harvest beyond sustainable levels.  Hatchery fish have out-competed native stocks and spread diseases.  But there is a new story about hatcheries, and the Cedar River sockeye hatchery, mitigation for the impacts of Landsburg Dam, is part of it. 

The new hatchery story is about using hatcheries to supplement wild stocks to create healthy, sustainable, and harvestable populations – using eggs cautiously harvested from the wild stocks during large runs, with monitoring and adaptive management programs to make decisions that support and sustain the wild run along with the hatchery fish.

The Cedar River sockeye hatchery is also emblematic of our own evolution, from seeing humans as separate from nature and nature as something to manipulate, to seeing humans as a part of the natural world.  The Cedar River serves us by providing water for Seattle and most of our suburbs.  But our part of the deal is to work hard to renew and protect its ecosystems.

Seattle has done that by purchasing all of the land in the watershed above our water supply dams – some 91,000 acres (way more than the area of the City itself!), and negotiating a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the federal government and the consent of the Muckleshoot Indian Nation, which has traditional fishing and hunting rights in this area.  The core purpose of the HCP is to protect the endangered population of wild Chinook salmon (along with several other species, such as the marbled murrelet).  The City protects the upstream ecosystem and provides flows that support salmon migration.  The flows are sustained because the City’s water conservation programs have reduced water consumption back to the levels of the 1950’s, despite serving many more people.  And part of the agreement was building a passage that allows Chinook salmon to enter the reservoir and spawn above the dam, in our water supply – but the channel is designed to prevent sockeye salmon from passing the Landsburg dam and limits that population to reproducing in the river below Landsburg.

There’s a reason for this distinction.  Cedar River ocean-run sockeye are neither native nor endangered.  They were introduced from the Baker River in 1935, and replaced the former fishery based on kokanee (lake-spawning) sockeye.  Although much larger than the Chinook population, the sockeye population has never produced enough salmon to sustain fishing every year, and in 1991 a temporary hatchery was constructed on the Cedar to supplement the natural spawning.  The new hatchery, which cost $7.9 million, replaces that temporary facility, with double the capacity and a much more sophisticated design and operating plan.

The temporary hatchery made sport and tribal fisheries possible in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006.  But returning sockeye have dropped to 44,000 by 2011, well below the 350,000 needed to sustain a fishery and still allow for reproduction.  The negotiated goal of the new hatchery is to make that fishery possible on a consistent basis.  Returning adults selected for the hatchery will only be taken in large numbers when the runs are large enough to sustain that.  They will be selected from all portions of the run and in a manner that minimizes effects on the migration and spawning of natural origin salmon.

This hatchery is an elegant compromise that meets a number of goals.  It offers the possibility of creating a sustainable fishery without compromising natural runs.  It also protects Seattle’s water supply, which can handle the relatively small number of spawning Chinook above Landsburg Dam but possibly not tens of thousands of sockeye.  It supports recovery of the endangered Chinook run.  And it meets our treaty obligations to the Muckleshoots and offers the opportunity for a sport fishery that will foster people’s understanding of the natural cycle and their commitment to protecting it.

It’s not surprising that hundreds of people came to the official opening, representing the tribe, several agencies and governments, and many members of the public.  Seattle Public Utilities staff deserve great credit for their creativity, persistence, and strategic thinking in making this project happen.

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