The Bernie "Kai Kai" Gobin Salmon Hatchery on the Tulalip Reservation will release a record number of salmon this year, but in spite of the increase, hatchery officials are not optimistic about the return rate for these salmon.
This year the hatchery has released 1.3 million Coho salmon, a record number. They have released 12 million salmon in total over the past calendar year.
Over the past many years, the hatchery has adopted better and better techniques to improve the harvested eggs' survival rates, said Jesse Rude, assistant manager at the hatchery. "When I started here over ten years ago, the survival rates were at 85 to 90 percent, but currently they are up to 96 percent."
One form of treatment the hatchery has adopted, using baking soda during the fertilization process, has led to safer preservation of the eggs while still being able to clean them, said Rude.
Hatcheries all across the state, both tribal-run and those operated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, employ precise tracking methods that allow for more accurate forecasts of fish runs and protection of wild salmon.
While the eggs are still developing in bins inside the hatchery, workers follow a regulated schedule for temperature variations in the water. Colder water causes a distinct change in the rings that are naturally formed on the fishes' otologic membrane, sometimes called its ear bone. By examining the ring pattern on fish carcasses, experts can determine the exact hatchery origin and release date.
A more visible indicator, which allows fishermen to distinguish between wild and hatchery-raised salmon, is called mass marking--the clipping of the fingerlings' adipose fin, located just in front of the tail. On average, state hatchery crews mark more than 100 million fish each year for release from state and tribal hatcheries.
The mass marking trailers run by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission provide a safe, mostly automated way to clip the adipose fin of the young salmon when they're approximately three inches long.
Salmon swim through a series of pipelines which sort them by weight. Cameras measure the fish to within a tenth of a millimeter and automated machines mark the fins.
The automated process is safer than the manual anesthetic process that led to unintentional overdoses and other problems.
Despite the efforts to put more salmon into Washington streams by local hatcheries, the return rates for salmon are not improving, according to Rude.
Puget Sound survival rates have been bad for awhile now, according to Mike Crewson, the Tribes' fisheries enhancement biologist. Last year was a record low for salmon return and four of the last six years have been record lows, said Crewson.
Many environmental factors from Puget Sound and the Washington streams may be harming salmon survival rates.
One factor for the poor returns could be that buildings and developments are significantly affecting the watershed around rivers, said Tom Murdoch, executive director of the Adopt-a-Stream Foundation.
The urbanization of the watershed is affecting water levels and water flow, which is harming the sustainability of salmon environments, said Murdoch.
He advocates for more low-impact developments and building designs that provide a more natural water flow.
The lack of estuaries could also be hurting salmon survival. Estuaries provide a transition between freshwater and saltwater, and are important for salmon growth, said Ray Fryberg, director of natural and cultural resources for the Tulalip Tribes.
However, many estuaries have been turned into land for agriculture, according to Kurt Nelson, a biologist who works for the Tulalip Tribes.
Projects like the Qwuloolt estuary restoration, which will rebuild the natural estuary east of Marysville, are a good start to improving salmon habitats, said Fryberg.
Fryberg also sees the changing Washington ecosystem as harmful to the salmon population.
More seals and sea lions have been making their home in Washington bays over the past decade, said Crewson, and they have been less migratory than in the past. "The predator/prey balance has gone out of whack right now," he said.
Fryberg says he wants to preserve the cultural legacy of his people.
"I've been a fisherman for most of my life and fishing has been a part of our culture and my family for hundreds of years," said Fryberg. "In the 70's, salmon were still thought of as an unlimited resource, but these days we're questioning whether the salmon populations will ever return to sustainable levels again."
"We're doing a lot to make salmon available, both for our culture and for Washington State, but we're still losing ground," said Fryberg.
Crewson knows that conservation groups are losing ground, not just in the number of salmon but in many of their efforts. His work with local groups included efforts to remove unnecessary levees to make streams more habitable, but despite efforts more levees have been added than removed from the region in the last ten years, he said.
Despite the continuing decline of salmon survival rates, Crewson doesn't want to give in to defeatist attitudes.
"People think it's too late, but I've been doing this for 30 years and I've seen how resilient these salmon can be."