Fisheries co-managers drafting joint hatchery policy

For decades, treaty tribes have operated their own hatchery programs to help sustain the region’s salmon and steelhead populations.

Tribes have built the facilities, staffed them, updated and expanded the programs and infrastructure as needed, and have run extensive monitoring and research on the fish throughout their life cycles.

“This work is staggering,” said Ed Johnstone, NWIFC chair.

As co-managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), tribes have worked collaboratively with state-run hatcheries as well, to support each other’s programs and their ultimate shared goal: recovery of these keystone food fish.

Treaty tribes are now challenging the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission—made up of nine commissioners who govern WDFW—to put in writing a commitment to co-management when it comes to setting state-level policy for hatchery programs.

“The previous policy was put in place without any input from us,” said Jason Gobin, fish and wildlife director of the Tulalip Tribes. “It’s our duty to manage these together, as co-managers.”

Because of federal treaties in place since the 1850s, the Boldt decision of 1974 and a Supreme Court ruling that affirmed that decision, the state is legally obligated to co-manage fisheries resources with the tribes.

A Joint Policy Agreement for the Management of Anadromous Salmon and Steelhead Hatcheries, referred to as a joint hatchery policy, is in development and inching closer to being finalized.

Lummi Nation salmon enhancement program manager Tom Chance, right, speaks during a tour of the tribe’s Skookum Creek Fish Hatchery in September 2022.

The draft policy includes commitments to work as co-managers to develop and implement hatchery management plans on a regional or watershed-specific basis, while conserving natural-spawning populations of fish and mitigating the effects of habitat loss and other environmental impacts.

“Hatcheries are primarily operated to preserve, reintroduce or supplement natural production that contributes to both the spawning production of those populations and augments harvest,” the draft policy states. “Hatcheries will contribute to meeting these needs while mitigation, habitat restoration and stock recovery efforts are ongoing.”

Tribes are also leaders of habitat restoration and climate change mitigation efforts, but are increasingly challenged by ongoing unregulated habitat degradation and the effects of climate change such as the loss of glaciers supplying cold water and the increase of seal predation on migrating fish.

“Our natural world is changing rapidly,” Johnstone said. “With that role of mitigation, hatcheries are more important now than they have ever been.”

Johnstone, Gobin and others discussed the science supporting hatcheries and the need for a joint policy with members of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in August.

Leadership and fisheries science representatives of the Lummi, Tulalip and Upper Skagit tribes shared why hatcheries have come to be needed, how the programs are run, and what successes and challenges they’ve seen in recent years.

Tribal hatchery programs are regulated by the same myriad federal laws as state operations, including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Food and Drug Administration oversight. They are required to have various permits and plans in place, and they staff experts including veterinarians who are responsible for managing fish health in the hatchery facilities.

The hatcheries also dispatch millions of tagging devices to track fish; collect thousands of genetic samples from fish that return to the facility and spawn in the wild; and gather various data points about fish population sizes, fish health and environmental conditions from stream to sea.

“Hatchery programs apply objective science and local ecological knowledge and expertise,” said Tom Chance, salmon enhancement program manager for Lummi Nation.

South Fork chinook eggs are fertilized at Skookum Creek Fish Hatchery in September 2022.

Lummi’s Skookum Creek Fish Hatchery is among those that has successfully helped regrow numbers of returning fish while also providing valuable harvest opportunities—along with Tulalip’s Bernie Kai Kai Gobin Hatchery and the Baker River sockeye program co-managed by Upper Skagit—but faces challenges from the habitat conditions beyond the hatchery walls.

Summer temperatures consistently exceed lethal thresholds for chinook in the waters of the South Fork Nooksack River and its tributaries. Then, fall and winter flooding can wipe out 50-95% of the eggs spawned in those waterways.

“This program is essential to prevent the extinction of the South Fork Nooksack chinook stock,” Chance said.

Tulalip Tribes salmon enhancement scientist Mike Crewson said the tribes also are seeing significant egg mortality in local creeks, and that keeping fertilized eggs safe in controlled hatchery conditions is a benefit of the programs.

Noting the tribes’ expertise and work to leverage hatcheries for salmon recovery, the state commissioners agreed to continue fine-tuning the joint hatchery policy for approval.

“I think by joining in some sort of official recognition of our co-management status, not only does that give the tribes sort of a formal seat at our table, but it also gives us a seat at their table when they are talking about how to manage and configure hatchery programs,” said state commissioner Steve Parker. “It commits us to working with each other and it also says to the world that we are equal parties in the development of hatchery programs.”

The tribes urged the state commission to prioritize completion of the guiding document and to vote on it before the end of the year.

“Co-management is the foundation that is going to help us recover these salmon in Puget Sound and on the Columbia River and on the Washington Coast,” Tulalip’s Gobin said. “In all the areas, these hatcheries are an integral part of the tribes’ ability to access their treaty-reserved resource.”

NWIFC Vice Chair and Lummi Council member Lisa Wilson said she was encouraged that the state commission sees the need to pass the policy and to focus on the shared goal of salmon recovery.

“I hope it will be the start of more meetings like that so we can talk about the bigger pictures and other policies we need to move toward, but in a co-manager fashion,” she said. “The tribes are working to bring the fish back for their people, for future generations and for everybody in the state.”

Above: Chinook mingle in a holding pond at Skookum Creek Fish Hatchery before being spawned in September 2022. Photos and story: Kimberly Cauvel.