Annual spawning process at Ringold Springs Hatchery benefits community

A Coho in amongst Chinook salmon at the Ringold Springs Fish Hatchery

Spawning season is an intense time at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) hatcheries every year. Hundreds of thousands of fish across the state need to be manually spawned to gather their eggs and milt (sperm) to create future generations of fish. Depending on the fish species, spawning takes place at different times but generally in the late fall and early winter. Spawning is such a big effort that WDFW depends on partners to get the work done, which benefits all of us in the end.

Staff from multiple agencies working together at the Ringold Springs Fish Hatchery to spawn salmon in late December.

At the Ringold Springs Hatchery on the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, WDFW staff team up with two area tribes- the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) and the Yakama Nation- each year to get this work done and to accommodate the regional need for future fish.

At Ringold, about 1.5 million Chinook salmon eggs and 300,000 Steelhead eggs are collected from spawning annually to produce the following year’s generation of fish. The remainder of the brood stock or returning adults, when available, are given to CTUIR or the Yakama Nation to supplement their fish production programs in Oregon and Washington, respectively. The CTUIR’s long-term goal is to re-establish a self-sustaining, naturally spawning population of fall chinook. This year, spawning at Ringold Springs was successful enough that CTUIR were able to take just over one-half million eggs.

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) collect eggs during the spawning process.

“We were very fortunate to have WDFW assist us in collecting and spawning surplus adults that returned to Ringold. Our fall Chinook yearling program would have been short of the goal if not for the coordination and supplementation efforts by everyone involved,” said Jon Lovrak, Artificial Production Supervisor with the CTUIR Department of Natural Resources. “We are also thankful to the Yakama Nation for their tremendous efforts in spawning excess adults for us at Priest Rapids Hatchery. This helped make up the rest of our shortfall. Another great example how important this shared resource is to all parties involved in the Columbia Basin.”

Staff from multiple agencies bundle up in the cold and wet conditions to spawn salmon at the Ringold Springs Fish Hatchery.

While some may be concerned that Washington is “giving away” a valuable resource such as fish eggs to other states, these hatchery programs are co-managed by Washington, Oregon, and tribes consistent with the United States v. Oregon management agreement. But the general public benefits as well. Fish reared in Oregon and Washington are released into the Columbia River and many of its tributaries which contribute to management objectives and fishing opportunities throughout the Columbia River Basin.

A WDFW staffer shows one of the fish to be spawned.

“A lot of people think we just raise some fish and release them into the river,” said WDFW Fish Hatchery Specialist Mike Erickson. “Hatchery management is not predictable from one year to the next; a great deal of adaptive management occurs. Remaining flexible, creative, and having a passion for what you do- like the many people who work on the spawning process do- usually helps to create a positive outcome.”

Also this year, Yakama Nation representatives were able to take 567,000 coho salmon eggs for reintroduction programs on the Yakima River. The Yakama Nation has been working for many years to restore extirpated runs of summer Chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon to the Yakima River. The Yakima River was historically a great salmon river. Over time, dam construction, habitat loss, and overfishing took a toll on the fish. From annual historic runs of between 44,000 and 150,000 fish, coho returns steadily dropped to zero by the 1980s. The Yakamas have hatcheries near Prosser and Ellensburg where they raise cohos provided by WDFW as a supplement to fish from the Yakima River.

Tribal members help with spawning.

In addition, the partnership effort to produce these fish helps to feed families. Salmon returning to the hatchery are often donated as food. Nearly 20,000 pounds of Chinook and coho were donated to Northwest Harvest, a program that supports food banks across Washington. Almost 60,000 pound of Chinook and coho salmon were provided to Yakama tribal members from this effort and nearly 7,000 pounds of Chinook salmon went to CTUIR members.

“CTUIR tribal members sincerely appreciated the ability to process and secure ceremonial and subsistence resources such as fall Chinook,” said Preston Bronson of CTUIR.

The spawning process is also an educational opportunity for area children. Twenty adult coho were donated for local school educational purposes. Chinook salmon eggs from spawning annually to produce the following year’s generation of fish. The remainder are given to CTUIR to supplement fish production programs in Oregon when their broodstock goals are not achieved.

Eggs are fertilized with milt (sperm) by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR)

“Our program mission is to provide sustainable harvest opportunities for aquatic species of the first food order by protecting, conserving, and restoring native aquatic populations and their habitats,” said Lovrak, with the CTUIR Department of Natural Resources. “And all of our co-managers help us contribute to that mission.”

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.