Rep. Luanne Van Werven: Time for a new fish hatchery model in Washington

Earlier this summer on a cool, drizzly day in Alaska I had the opportunity to see firsthand how Alaska has turned a dwindling salmon population into a successful and bountiful industry with a world-class fish hatchery model.

In the early 1970’s, salmon runs in Alaska were very low. The commercial and recreation fishing industries in the state were threatened.

Alaska stepped in with salmon enhancement projects, including the start of several non-profit fish hatcheries assembled through a public-private partnership with the key component of the plan being $100 million in low-interest loans. One of those hatcheries was the DIPAC (Douglas Island Pink and Chum) hatchery in Juneau, Alaska, a true success story, and it isn’t the only one. Of the 29 hatcheries in Alaska 25 are successful non-profit operations.

With our state’s salmon and orca population at a critical juncture, this trip gave great insight on what Washington can do to address the reduction in fish population that is having damaging effects on our orca population along with the tribal, commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Doug Thomas of Bellingham Cold Storage, along with an official board of directors representing a diverse group of stakeholders, are leading a local salmon hatchery effort similar to the Alaska model. Thomas and his board have established a non-profit organization called San Juan AREA Sea Life. AREA stands for Area Research Education and Advancement of Sea Life. The diverse group includes commercial and recreational fisheries, elected officials, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), local tribes, the city of Bellingham, tourism, whale watching industry, local agriculture, the port district and Bellingham Technical College.

One of the goals of this organization is to bring the salmon populations back to 1985 levels which is a high-water mark according to officials at both the Lummi Nation Natural Resources Committee and the WDFW.

Our plan is to work with the Legislature to allocate state funding for a feasibility study to implement a pilot hatchery based on the world-class DIPAC facility that we toured in Juneau.

Fish school math

The fish numbers just from the DIPAC facility are impressive:

  • DIPAC produces 137 million fish every year.
  • Survival rate of salmon to adulthood in Alaska – of both native and hatchery fish – is 1 to 10% depending on the year; 
  • A conservative 1% survival means 1.37 million DIPAC salmon return to where they were released. 

The non-profit hatcheries in Alaska are self-sustaining. The first fish that return to the hatchery cover the annual operating costs and longer-term capital expenditures. For the DIPAC hatchery this past year 17% of their returns cover costs, so the rest, 83%, are available for tribal fisheries, commercial and sport fisheries. 

In Washington, taxpayers pay 100% of the cost of hatchery operations. Using a model like our friends to the north would take the pressure off our state hatchery system.

Our WDFW does the best they can with the state-owned hatcheries given the resources and staff they have. The challenge is there aren’t enough resources. When the WDFW needs money, they go to taxpayers (licenses/fees), the Legislature, or run on a smaller budget.

Now we are in a position to address the salmon crisis by following the example of our friends to the north. We can implement a model to sustain and enhance valuable salmon resources that will benefit recreation, commercial and tribal fisheries and positively impact the orca population.

The Bellingham waterfront already has infrastructure in place that would lend itself to this type of project. There is an existing underground water pipe that comes from the deepest, cleanest and coldest part of Lake Whatcom. It previously provided water for the now defunct Georgia Pacific pulp mill. The mill used 60 million gallons a day while we anticipate needing 4-6 million maximum for the salmon hatchery.

Finally, a very important point, the hatchery fish would not compete with the native stock.

Salmon would not be released in streams where native stocks are located, and the best available science would be used for management and determining appropriate remote release sites and times.

This is a responsible plan and a great opportunity as we look to the future of environmental and natural resource sustainability. We are working off a proven model – one that can sustain and enhance valuable salmon resources for the economic, social and cultural benefit of our citizens.

We can restore the fisheries and leave a lasting legacy as we have an incredible opportunity for long-term success right here in our state.

Rep. Luanne Van Werven represents the 42nd Legislative District. She serves as the ranking member on the College and Workforce Development Committee, and also serves on the House Transportation and Innovation, Technology and Economic Development committees.

State Representative Luanne Van Werven, 42nd Legislative District
466 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7980 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000