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Life takes shape at Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery

Fish and Wildlife operation provides stock for Indian tribes


by: NEWS PHOTO: SCOTT JORGENSEN - Hatchery manager Caroline Peterschmidt shows off some of the facilitys features. The long and winding road leading to the Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery passes by sensational scenery. On the average winter day, a thin layer of snow blankets the fields surrounding the site, which is operated under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service division of the Department of the Interior.

Built in the 1950s, the hatchery produces nature’s miracles on a daily basis, as the cycle of life has made its way around here for decades. Literally tens of millions of fish have owed their essence and existence to the facility.

Caroline Peterschmidt is the hatchery manager, and heads up the five-member staff. She’s been going through the process of interviewing candidates for temporary positions in anticipation of the upcoming steelhead spawning season.

One of the hatchery’s main missions is to support the Yakama and Nez Perce Indian tribes’ coho salmon restoration projects.

When spring rolls around, tanker trucks will be filled with fish and driven to the reservations for release. The remainder of the stock will be released into Eagle Creek to enhance local fisheries.

by: NEWS PHOTO: SCOTT JORGENSEN - These eggs may resemble caviar, but will become the fish of tomorrow. The hatchery’s location is somewhat remote, being several miles off of Highway 224. But from a practical standpoint, it’s ideal — the water source is gravity fed, as opposed to the more expensive and less reliable pump systems used by many hatcheries.

“You build the hatchery where the water is,” Peterschmidt said.

A generator is used to backup the hatchery’s electrical system. That comes in handy when power goes out, which happened for an entire 12-hour period earlier this month.

Stringent health standards are required at the hatchery, as it carries an official virus-free certification. That’s especially important, because many of the fish are eventually shipped across state lines.

“Like any livestock operation, we pay attention to the health of our animals,” Peterschmidt said.

Coho salmon spawning starts at the hatchery in late October. The eggs are sorted and stored for about 18 months while the fish hatch and develop. Up until then, they are physiologically unable to survive in the ocean, as their systems cannot process the saltwater.

Around the 18-month mark, the fish begin “smolting.” Cells in their gills turn on as they mature so they can adapt to the saltwater. They also get longer and skinnier and their color changes from brown to silver.

“They need to be camouflaged,” Peterschmidt said.

Eggs are currently being incubated at the facility, with some coho just now starting to hatch. They’re placed in the incubation stocks and will soon be moved to raceways, where they are fed and kept alive and healthy until they can be released.

“They start getting a little rambunctious, but some are more ready than others,” Peterschmidt said.

Once the fish are released into Eagle Creek, the hope is that they head straight to the Pacific Ocean. If they spend too much time in the rivers along the way, Peterschmidt said, they compete with native stock for food, and may even end up eating some of them.

“We want them to just get up and get out,” she said.

After being out at sea for more than a year, the fish make their return, swimming upstream using their sense of smell so they can spawn and produce the next generation. By then, many are between 12 and 18 pounds, and come back to the very same gravel bars where they were originally spawned.

“It’s the smell that they recognize as home,” Peterschmidt said.

The fish are systematically funneled into a receiving pond before going to a holding pond for spawning. There are currently seven steelhead in the holding pond, as they’re just starting to trickle in.

“It’s a pretty big operation,” Peterschmidt said, adding that the hatchery crew is supplemented by other local teams of fish experts for that phase of the operation.

Most of the fish die immediately after spawning. Their carcasses are used to provide food to people, and some are sent back into the watershed. There, the remainder of their physical being will become a source of nutrition for their young spawn.

Some steelhead continue living after spawning and head back out to the ocean. They return later for another round of spawning.

As can be expected, science plays an important role in the hatchery’s daily happenings. The overall production level is less than it has been traditionally in terms of the numbers of fish produced, because the emphasis is now placed on quality above sheer quantity.

Staff members are more aware of the genetic matches between fish and watersheds and try to keep the stock in the proper areas in order to avoid disturbing their natural environment as much as possible.

“There’s an art that goes along with the science,” Peterschmidt said.

Tours of the hatchery are available, and Peterschmidt is willing to make herself available to speak before different school groups, as the hatchery’s location makes it difficult for school buses to bring students to the site.

Visiting hours at the hatchery are 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and it is closed on weekends and holidays.

For more information, call Caroline Peterschmidt at 503-630-6270, extension 205, or email her at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..