After remaining closed to the public for two years, the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery reopened on March 21. Although many businesses have shut down and reopened during the pandemic, the hatchery—which is part of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife—was not granted permission to fully open until just recently.
“When the COVID restrictions started to loosen, Fish and Wildlife was willing to work with us in the best way possible, so they allowed us to do tours, but they were restrictive tours,” said Robin Kelley, Executive Director of Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery (FISH). “They had to be guided tours with a docent so that they were going to places around the grounds that they were permitted—they weren’t going inside the buildings at all because inside the buildings is where the employees need to work.”
Kelley brought up how the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery has two Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife employees who live on the grounds with their families and focus on nurturing and studying the salmon. If one of the employees were to have gotten sick with COVID-19, the likelihood of both getting sick—and their families—would have increased, relayed Kelley.
This year, the state decided that it was a safe enough environment for employees living on the grounds to open the hatchery to the public. In addition to the two fish biologists, members of the nonprofit, FISH, are present to support the hatchery.
“We have 100-plus volunteers and are the ones who do the tours or go to the schools to talk about the salmon, or do science fairs or go to outreach events, or go to the city council to tell them whatever is new with salmon science or whatever new hazards there are for the salmon,” said Kelley.
This spring, the hatchery has about four million baby salmon that are the result of a spawn that happened last fall, according to Kelley.
“In the fall when the adult salmon come back up to the creek and they spawn, we collect their eggs,” said Kelley. “We have a certain goal in mind. There’s a number that is set by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Olympia—they do the analysis and statistics and determine how many eggs should be collected from the adult salmon in the fall.”
After the adult salmon spawn in the fall, their eggs are collected and placed in incubation trays in the hatchery building. They remain in the incubation trays for several months, with water from the Issaquah Creek filtering through, but keeping them protected from the environment.
“Part of the goal of our work—the hatchery’s work—is to make sure that there’s an abundance of young salmon that are hatched and raised to a certain point, and then they’re released here into the stream just as if they were hatched in the stream,” said Kelley.
The eggs in the incubation trays become fry, then develop into small fish about three to four inches long. When they come of age, which is during the springtime, the small fish will be released into the stream and live the rest of their lives in nature.
Kelley mentioned how once released, the small salmon will travel down the Issaquah Creek into Lake Sammamish, which will lead them to the Sammamish River. From the Sammamish River the young salmon will head to Lake Union through Lake Washington, then to the Ballard Locks which will lead them to the ocean. The fish will live in the ocean for three to five years and repeat the trip back up to Issaquah Creek when it’s time for them to spawn.
“The release is determined in just a few days. They feed the fish and watch the fish and measure the fish to make sure that they’ve developed to the stage where they’re viable and where it’s appropriate, and they’d be ready to go out to the saltwater,” said Kelley.
During the release, the filters to the ponds where the fish are held will be opened, and piping will push the young salmon into the stream.
“They’ll get into the stream, and you’ll see just tens of thousands of fish all clustered together—small fish—and then they’ll start just turning and going downstream and heading out to the ocean,” said Kelley.
Kelley described the life of a salmon as an egregious one, due to the number of predators they face on their journey to the ocean, on top of facing a new set of predators once the fish reach the ocean, such as killer whales, seals, and bald eagles.
“That’s why we like to raise so many, that it increases their odds because we want salmon to endure for future generations as well,” said Kelley. “We want people to be able to fish for them and eat them and enjoy watching them.”
While the life of a salmon has become more difficult as populations diminish, the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery offers guided tours which allow visitors to understand ways in which they can help protect salmon.
“You can drive less, you can carpool, you can make sure to clean up after your dog when you’re going for a walk—that’s one of the big polluters,” said Kelley. “You cannot use commercial fertilizers on your lawn, because a lot of those chemicals then drain down into the pipes that go into the stream.”
Kelley described several daily actions that can be taken to protect the salmon population in this region. She explained how the use of commercial chemicals in yards runs into street drains and ends up in the water system, which the watershed must filter out. The increase in chemicals feeds into the stream and impacts water quality, which simultaneously impacts salmon.
Looking forward, the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery will be planning YMCA tours and summer camps, including the salmon science summer camp, which the facility has not done in the past two years.
“We’re so excited. We had several tentative reopening dates that got cancelled because of the variants,” said Kelley. “It’s several times we’ve hoped we’d be opening, so it’s really especially exciting that this time we were able to complete it, and there wasn’t any backsliding with COVID.”
For more information on the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery visit https://www.issaquahfish.org/.