For more information on hatcheries, please contact the
WDFW Fish Program.

Cowlitz Hatchery in southwest Washington
The Cowlitz Hatchery in southwest Washington is one of 83 hatchery facilities operated by WDFW. Together, these facilities represent a public investment of more than $1-billion.

Salmon Hatcheries Overview

Hatcheries have operated in Washington State for more than a century, beginning with one hatchery on the Kalama River in 1895. Originally built to compensate for land use decisions that permanently altered large areas of fish-producing habitat, state hatcheries have since become an important part of the state's economy, releasing millions of fish annually for harvest by recreational and commercial fisheries. Tagging studies indicate that more than 75% of the salmon caught in Puget Sound and 90% of the salmon caught in the Columbia River originate from hatcheries, as do 88% of all steelhead.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) now operates 83 hatchery facilities, of which 75-80% are dedicated to producing salmon and/or steelhead and another 20-25% rear trout and other gamefish. Fifty-one tribal hatcheries (45 NWIFC facilities, three Colville Confederated Tribes and three Yakama Nation) and 12 federal hatcheries also contribute to the statewide salmon harvest, which contributed over $1-billion to the state's economy according to estimates by the U. S. Department of Commerce.

In recent years, state hatcheries also have taken on an equally important role in helping to recover and conserve the state's naturally-spawning salmon populations. Nearly all the hatcheries in the Columbia River and a number of hatcheries in Puget Sound play a role in wild fish rebuilding programs, whether by rearing juveniles prior to release or holding fish through their lifespan to ensure the survival of depressed stocks. This renewed focus on wild stock recovery represents a major realignment in hatchery operations, as WDFW, the tribes, federal government and independent scientists worked to develop a comprehensive operations strategy for hatcheries in Washington.

One major milestone was the mass marking of virtually all hatchery coho and Chinook salmon released from state hatcheries. Using automatic fin-clipping machines, state hatchery crews mark more than 100-million fish each year for release from state and tribal hatcheries, allowing for easy identification of hatchery salmon on the fishing grounds. Mass-marking laid the foundation for a new era in selective fisheries in which fishers are required to release wild, unmarked fish.

The Hatcheries Division is the largest single component of WDFW's Fish Program, with 298 FTE employees and a total operating budget of $63.9-million during the 2011-2013 Biennium, including $11.1-million from the State General Fund. Working out of the Department's headquarters in Olympia and hatchery facilities throughout the state, hatchery staff are responsible for fish culture, fish health, facility maintenance, hatcheries support (including activities ranging from tagging and marking fish to securing permits) and administration.

Hatchery Reform
WDFW hatchery workers harvest chinook salmon eggs at the Issaquah Hatchery
WDFW hatchery workers harvest chinook salmon eggs at the Issaquah Hatchery.

As with all activities that can affect wild stocks, state hatcheries have come under intense review since the federal listing of salmon population groupings under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In addition to initiating its own review process, WDFW worked with federal natural resource agencies and a newly-appointed regional science panel, the Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG), to identify ways to minimize adverse impacts of hatchery operations on depressed wild stocks, while contributing to sustainable fisheries. The HSRG conducted a comprehensive review of 178 hatchery programs and 351 salmon and steelhead populations in Puget Sound/Coastal Washington and the Columbia River Basin. The resulting population-specific recommendations are intended to provide scientific guidance for managing each hatchery more effectively in the future. This means a hatchery program must not adversely impact the wild populations from which it was derived, and/or encounters outside the hatchery. The number of fish released from each program should be tailored to the available habitat and/or purpose of the program overall and not overwhelm needs (habitat and feeding as juveniles, interbreeding and/or competition for space on the spawning grounds as returning adults) of other fish in the watershed.

These ongoing efforts, including the Departments’ initiative through 21 Century Salmon and Steelhead, the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s adoption of their Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy are all clear roadmaps for hatchery operations into the future in order to fulfill the dual role of harvest and conservation. Details associated with specific hatchery programs and associated operations can be found in the Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans (HGMPs) for more than one hundred state hatchery programs.

Hatchery Production
Total Salmon Production by State Hatcheries (All Species)

Pounds of Salmon & Steelhead Chart 1998-2014. Chart shows peak production in 1998 with over 6 million pounds and a low in 2014 with 4 million pounds    Number of Salmon & Steelhead Chart 1998-2014. Chart shows peak production in 1998 with 200 million salmon produced and an average low of under 150 million salmon between 2008 and 2014.

Hatchery production over the past decade shows a continuing general decline in the number of juvenile salmon released from WDFW hatcheries in recent years. The decline in poundage is less pronounced in recent years, however, because fish have generally been held longer, and are therefore released at a larger size, to improve their chance of survival once they are released.

In either case, ESA-related permitting requirements and/or implementation of hatchery reform have prompted reduction in production of specific stocks or species at certain locations. Also, WDFW's hatchery budget has not kept pace with increasing operating costs (especially utilities, fish feed and labor costs), forcing cutbacks in some programs.

Wild Stock Restoration
Programs with conservation objectives for ESA-listed stocks:
(* = Type of restoration efforts; Both = captive brood and supplementation.)
Species/Stock County ESA listed/year Type*
Spring Chinook
NF Nooksack River Whatcom Yes/1999 Captive Brood
SF Nooksack River Whatcom Yes/1999 Captive Brood
Puyallup (White River) Pierce Yes/1999 Supplementation
Dungeness River Clallam Yes/1999 Supplementation
Tucannon River Columbia Yes/1992 Supplementation
Wenatchee (Chiwawa R) Chelan Yes/1998 Supplementation
Wenatchee (White R) Chelan Yes/1998 Both
Methow (Twisp R) Okanogan Yes/1998 Supplementation
Fall Chinook
Elwha River Clallam Yes/1999 Supplementation
Snake River Columbia Yes/1992 Supplementation
Summer Chinook
Stillaguamish Snohomish Yes/1998 Supplementation
Summer Chum
Puget Sound Clallam/ Jefferson/ Mason/ Kitsap Yes/1999 Supplementation
Grays River Wahkiakum Yes/1999 Supplementation
Washougal River Skamania Yes/1999 Supplementation
Summer Steelhead
Kalama River Cowlitz Yes/1998 Supplementation
Methow River Okanogan Yes/1997 Supplementation
Tucannon River Columbia Yes/1997 Supplementation
Touchet River WallaWalla Yes/1999 Supplementation
Wenatchee River Chelan Yes/1997 Supplementation
Okanogan River Okanogan Yes/1997 Supplementation
Winter Steelhead
Green River Pierce Yes/2007 Supplementation
Kalama River Cowlitz Yes/1998 Supplementation
Lewis River Clark Yes/1998 Supplementation

State hatcheries also play an important role in some aspects of wild salmon recovery. Hatcheries are now viewed by fishery scientists and policy makers as integral tools for the restoration of wild runs that have dwindled because of habitat degradation or other factors. Over 20 hatcheries are involved in recovery actions for 20 individual currently-listed ESA stocks.

Hatcheries play several different roles in sustaining wild stocks. For stocks such as Puyallup River spring Chinook, adults are captured and spawned each year and the resulting progeny are reared and released as juveniles. The purpose of these efforts, called "supplementation," is to maximize egg fertilization and fry survival and thereby increase the number of smolts heading out to the ocean (“outmigrating”).

For other stocks, such as SF Nooksack River spring Chinook and White River (Wenatchee) spring Chinook that are at dangerously low population levels, juveniles were maintained in a hatchery for their entire life to ensure the stock's survival – a practice known as "captive brood." While this process can often take years to show results, efforts by WDFW to bolster depleted runs paid off at a number of facilities.

The White River Chinook salmon restoration project on the Puyallup River system is the oldest recovery effort involving hatchery facilities in Washington, setting the standard for similar efforts up and down the West Coast. Begun in the late-1970s by the (then) Washington Department of Fisheries, this on-going project has used supplementation, captive brood, habitat restoration and harvest restrictions, as well as dam relicensing and minimum flow agreements, to bring this unique stock back from the brink of extinction.

Working in cooperation with the Puyallup Tribe, the Muckleshoot Tribe, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and others, WDFW has helped to rebuild the White River Chinook salmon population – listed as "threatened" under the ESA in 1999 – from fewer than 20 returning adults in the early 1980s, to an average of over 2,000 fish over the past 10 years. Prospects for recovery of this stock are considered good and the project has become a model for successful stock restoration.

Hatchery facilities involved include Hupp Springs, Minter Creek, South Sound Net Pens, the Muckleshoot Tribal Hatchery on the White River, and a number of rearing/acclimation ponds operated by the Puyallup Tribe.

Mass Marking

Perhaps the single biggest change in salmon fishing over the past decade was the expansion of coho and Chinook selective fisheries to include the Washington coast and many inland waters. Selective fisheries are designed to protect wild stocks and provide harvest of healthy hatchery runs: this program allows fisheries managers to better assess hatchery/wild stock composition in various fisheries, providing an important tool in establishing harvest quotas during fishing seasons, as well as determining stray rates of hatchery fish into natural spawning areas.

To make it possible for fishers to distinguish between hatchery and wild salmon, WDFW crews started clipping the adipose fins (mass marking) of hatchery coho in 1996, and hatchery Chinook in 1999. On average, state hatchery crews mark more than 100-million fish each year for release from state and tribal hatcheries. Significant coho selective fisheries were allowed in 1999 and 2000 (from juveniles clipped in 1997 and 1998), and Chinook selective fisheries have incrementally expanded towards the end of this decade, in which 2010 saw the first coastal Chinook selective fishery.

Mass-Marked Salmon Released by WDFW Hatcheries

Release Year 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Coastal    4,871,828    4,329,341    4,617,352    4,613,575    4,840,404    4,654,367    4,651,716    3,868,424    3,801,112    3,492,752    3,626,090
Columbia River    8,415,541    8,401,655    8,398,076    7,406,284    7,599,984    7,324,586    5,973,226    6,909,030    7,458,429    6,788,072    7,095,138
Puget Sound    5,185,837    5,005,266    5,946,420    5,549,585    4,774,838    4,365,153    4,855,334    4,162,210    4,261,284    4,490,703    4,327,583
Total  18,473,206  17,736,262  18,961,848  17,569,444  17,215,226  16,344,106  15,480,276  14,939,664  15,520,825  14,771,527  15,048,811
Coastal       212,415       290,332       215,136    2,050,187    8,702,478    7,779,882    7,786,016    4,772,090    7,724,846    7,048,540    7,374,544
Columbia River    2,293,509    2,453,906    3,024,108    9,267,623  19,133,351  21,303,925  22,629,207  24,566,943  22,272,349  24,491,096  23,372,029
Puget Sound  16,703,357  17,811,845  18,210,363  21,565,199  22,403,794  24,505,746  24,553,016  21,212,095  24,877,315  22,543,851  22,054,610
Total  19,209,281  20,556,083  21,449,607  32,883,009  50,239,623  53,589,553  54,968,239  50,551,128  54,874,510  54,083,487  52,801,183
Coastal       905,792       908,592       942,095    1,023,387       863,627       793,719    1,001,061       897,340       777,183       920,473       910,862
Columbia River    2,966,429    2,818,309    2,520,798    3,368,175    3,518,372    3,166,354    3,438,139    3,157,717    3,159,371    3,115,612    3,265,049
Puget Sound    2,103,316    2,104,842    2,178,716    2,307,194    2,172,245    1,960,098    1,824,061    1,151,976    1,270,741    1,295,148    1,197,025
Total    5,975,537    5,831,743    5,641,609    6,698,756    6,554,244    5,920,171    6,263,261    5,207,033    5,207,295    5,331,233    5,372,936
Grand Total  43,658,024  44,124,088  46,053,064  57,151,209  74,009,093  75,853,830  76,711,776  70,697,825  75,602,630  74,186,247  73,222,930

Hatchery Infrastructure

Map of hatchery complexes in Washington State
Click on map to enlarge

The state's hatchery system represents a public investment of over $1-billion. Built as compensation for lost natural habitat, state hatcheries produce millions of fish for harvest every year, supporting fisheries and local economies from northern Puget Sound to the Columbia River. For an increasing number of depressed wild stocks, hatchery programs offer the best chance of survival. Over the years, WDFW has worked to protect the public's investment in state hatcheries and make the changes necessary to ensure they will continue to provide these benefits in the 21st Century. With the listing of large numbers of naturally-produced salmon populations under the ESA, all the factors believed to play a role in the decline of a stock became subject to review, including state hatcheries. While hatcheries have become an increasingly important tool in the restoration of wild stocks, they can also present obstacles to recovery.

Some facilities, particularly those built decades ago, can present physical barriers to naturally-produced outmigrating juveniles or to adult fish returning to streams to spawn. Scientists also have concerns about interbreeding between wild and hatchery fish on the spawning grounds, and about predation and competition for food in streams, estuaries and the open ocean. WDFW worked to address these issues in a variety of ways, filing 45 Hatchery Genetic Management Plans (HGMPs) with NMFS for Lower Columbia River hatchery programs in 2004, and 128 HGMPs for Puget Sound, Lower-, Mid- and Upper Columbia hatchery programs in 2005, and began the process of filing updated HGMPs in 2012. In addition WDFW has been using the All-H Analyzer (AHA) to model current programs relative to target goals, and to evaluate options for reducing biological risks that hatcheries pose.

For all these efforts, the need for additional investments in the state's aging hatchery infrastructure was identified long before the announcement of the latest round of ESA listings in 1999 (reaffirmed in 2005, and again in 2011). The HSRG reviews completed in Puget Sound and Coastal Washington estimated necessary facility renovations could approach and exceed $150-million.

To meet these needs, in 2012, the Washington State Legislature enacted the “Jobs Now” Act to provide an additional investment of $56.7-million in capital funds for statewide hatchery infrastructure improvements. The overall Jobs Now Act will stimulate the state economy by creating needed jobs, and improving WDFW Hatcheries facilities and infrastructure across the state, providing benefits taxpayers for generations to come.WDFW regularly monitors the discharge from all hatcheries to comply with federal water quality standards, and recently received its five-year National Pollution Discharge Effluent System permit.

Beyond the Hatchery

Northwest Harvest

For over ten years, WDFW has donated surplus adult salmon from its state hatcheries to Northwest Harvest, a non-profit hunger-relief program in the State of Washington. The food-grade salmon are turned into fillets that are frozen and distributed to food banks and meal programs around the state; a portion of the fillets are also turned into salmon patties. This partnership helps put a desirable, valuable source of nutritious protein on the tables of struggling families around the state at no additional cost to the state.

Nutrient Enhancement

Research over the past decade in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska has demonstrated the critical role salmon play in transporting nutrients from the Pacific Ocean to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. Over 83 wildlife species (mammals, birds, insects, fish, etc.) — including newly hatched juvenile salmon — rely on the flesh of dead spawned salmon to survive. Because of the decline of naturally-spawning salmon in many Washington rivers and streams, there are fewer salmon carcasses available to provide the nutrients necessary to support the young salmon. Nutrient enhancement projects increase juvenile salmon survival and play an important role in the recovery of salmon populations. The Hatcheries Division worked aggressively with Regional Fishery Enhancement Groups (RFEGs) and other local organizations, primarily volunteers, to distribute the carcasses of adult salmonids used for broodstock at WDFW hatcheries back into watersheds. Beginning in 1996 with 14 projects and 4,747 carcasses. Over the next 15 years, the program has distributed more than 808,000 carcasses into streams across the state. Because the movement of fresh carcasses between watersheds has limitations due to the risk of spreading fish pathogens, WDFW has investigated the development and use of approved alternatives, such as processed carcasses (pasteurized briquettes, also known as “analogs”), as a replacement for carcasses in streams with poor adult returns.

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