Keeping salmon and steelhead hatcheries open
For more than a century, Washington state has used hatcheries to supplement fish runs for both conservation and harvest. Today, dozens of hatcheries across the state produce tens of millions of fish every year, supporting local economies and mitigating the impacts of human activity in some of Washington’s most recognizable waterways.
Hatcheries are operated by a number of different partners, including federal, tribal, and state programs. They are also funded through a variety of sources. Now, two of those funding sources are at risk, putting three hatcheries operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) — and the millions of salmon and steelhead they produce annually — in danger of closing.
WDFW is requesting $3.5 million to maintain current levels of production and avoid closure of its Toutle, Skamania, and Elwha hatchery facilities, while supporting statewide conservation goals and preserving the millions in economic benefits these facilities provide every year by bringing anglers and tourists into local communities.
The Toutle and Skamania hatcheries in Southwest Washington produce steelhead, and Chinook and coho salmon in the Columbia River basin. These facilities are funded through the federal Mitchell Act, which for more than 80 years has supported fish populations and local economies in the Pacific Northwest. The Mitchell Act today supports 20 salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest, accounting for roughly a third of the 129 million fish produced in the Columbia River basin in 2019.
Chronically stagnant funding for Mitchell Act facilities and increasing operational costs have threatened the Department’s ability to maintain current production levels. If this shortfall isn’t addressed, production of up to 1.5 million salmon and steelhead will be cut, and Skamania and Toutle hatcheries will close.
These cuts would scale back fishing opportunities — primarily in the lower Columbia River — and impact recreational and commercial fisheries from Alaska to Canada, resulting in an estimated loss of approximately $2.2 million annually to regional economies. Such a reduction would also impact fall Chinook stocks that serve as a key food source for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.
WDFW and its partners are also seeking funding at the federal level to support Mitchell Act facilities and avoid additional production cuts, keeping this vital resource alive for future generations.
Meanwhile, on the Olympic Peninsula, funding from the National Parks Foundation that supports the Elwha Rearing Channel will expire at the end of September 2021, leaving a shortfall of $1.5 million.
The Elwha hatchery rears and releases 2.7 million Chinook each year that contribute to stock recovery goals of Elwha River Chinook, which are currently listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and provide a key prey base for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population.
The Elwha Rearing Channel was established in 1975 to mitigate for the loss of habitat access above the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dam, which eliminated over 90 miles of mainstem and tributary spawning and rearing habitat. The Elwha and Glines dams were removed in the early 2010s, and the National Park Foundation funded the Elwha Rearing Channel as a key part of one of the nation’s largest-ever river restoration project. The initial funding timeline was 8–10 years post-dam removal and will expire in fall 2021.
With salmon stocks still recovering, identifying alternative funding for the Elwha Rearing Channel is essential, as it remains an important source of Chinook on the Olympia Peninsula and protects a genetically unique stock.
Closing these hatcheries would represent a major blow, not only to the employees who work at these facilities, but to conservationists and anglers throughout Washington. With uncertainty about the ability to shift this production to other facilities, production of more than 4 million salmon and steelhead could be lost, along with an estimated $6.5 million in economic contributions.