We Are With The Fishes

Saturday, September 17, 2022

This post has been a long time coming……. and yes, I’ll bet some of you really thought we were with the fishes….. and we really are! We arrived at the Bonneville Fish Hatchery on August 31, a day earlier than expected. Our friends who had moved from SoCal to Castle Rock had a medical emergency so we were unable to meet with them. Our site at Bonneville was open so we decided to toodle on down there.

Traffic on I-5 was not too bad until we approached Vancouver, WA and then it continued to build. We crossed the might Columbia River into what used to be the lovely city of Portland and headed east on I-84 until reaching the Bonneville Dam and Hatchery turnoff about 40 miles later. Total distance 90 miles.

After setting up our RV down in site #2 (lower site) we met with Hugh the hatchery groundskeeper to find out what’s going on, what kind of help he needs and to pick up our host notebook and keys to the facility. We also met with Mike and Sue, the other hatchery hosts who had a work schedule all laid out for us.

Egg Incubation Building

Those of you who have followed our blog know that we have volunteered at this hatchery maybe a half dozen times. We know the ropes but needed to find out what may be new since our last visit three years ago. Mike, Sue and Hugh filled us in and we got some work assignments that will keep us busy for a few weeks.

A sampling of the hatchery grounds that we are asked to maintain

Bonneville Hatchery raises chinook and coho Salmon. Chinook run three times a year- spring salmon, tule salmon run right now and brights run in late fall. The fall tule salmon run is upon us and its a doozy! One of the “fish guys” has been here for 17 years and he’s never seen so many salmon returning to the hatchery. The salmon are backed up in Tanner Creek all the way to the Columbia River. So far they’ve work the fish almost every weekday beginning in late August and that will continue. Spawning has occurred three times since our arrival.

Salmon come in from the Pacific Ocean, up Columbia River 150 miles to Tanner Creek, then up fish ladder to holding pond in the hatchery

To explain: Working fish means bringing them into the spawning room from manmade ponds and channels. The fish, tule and coho salmon, are “calmed” with an electric current introduced to the basket immersed in water to calm but not harm the fish. They are placed on sorting tables, males going one direction, females another. The females are checked for condition and egg ripeness, the most desirable males and females are sorted by species and placed in a long tube where they slide into their respective “spawning pond”.

Most of the fish can’t be used for spawning as they are too numerous. The excess fish either go to a buyer intended for human consumption, a food bank and sometimes a Native American Tribe will come for their share. The fish that are no longer fit for human consumption go to processors who make animal food out of them. Even though many fish return to the hatchery, very few are wasted.

What you been up to you may ask. Well, we’ve mostly helped Hugh working in the lovely gardens here at the hatchery. Our daily chores include watering numerous pots of annual flowers with the use of a portable watering system mounted on our Toro Workman. We ensure the trash cans aren’t overflowing. We clean up any wayward trash policing the entire grounds. The many trees drop limbs which need to be picked up and disposed of. The trout ponds are inspected for dead trout and removed when found. Mitchell creek is in front of the hatchery and has a nasty habit of clogging up its spillway, especially after a storm or when invaded by beaver, so the spillway is monitored and cleaned almost daily to keep the water flowing.

Once a week we feed Herman the Sturgeon- all 10 feet and 500 pounds of him! Ollie is very interested in Herman!

Our extra/non-daily chores include cleaning out plant beds of weeds and spent plants, dead heading spent flowers and pruning rose bushes. We’ve weeded and put down bark dust in 100′ of rose bed. We’ll be draining and cleaning the large fountain in the next couple of days. Probably our most important “extra duty” job occurs this time of year, that of assisting the “fish guys and gals” spawn salmon.

Spawning tule chinook salmon

Spawning salmon is a big deal. Spawning creates a new generation of fish. Our duties of helping Hugh with groundskeeping comes to a halt in order that we help in the process of spawning fish. Fish are brought into the spawning building the same way as when sorting but these are brought in from the spawning ponds. They are again sorted, this time checking the females to make sure they are “ripe”, the males go down a different line. The “green” females are put back into the spawning ponds, the ripe are euthanized, bled and then their egg sacs are opened, eggs spilling into a paper bucket normally used by movie theaters to hold a large batch of popcorn. There the eggs are fertilized with the male’s milt.

Biologist taking fin samples

Jil helps by placing the fertilized eggs into a 5 gallon plastic bucket, seven female’s fertilized eggs to bucket, then I transport the buckets of eggs over to the incubation building where the eggs a placed in an antiseptic solution, then into trays of fresh running water where the eggs will hatch. The fry will live off of their yolk sac for a time. When that is depleted they are then fed fish food, eventually going outdoors and living in a rearing pond. About a year from birth the fish a large enough to release. They are “tagged” as hatchery fish by removing their adipose fin and about 10% get a snout tag. They are then released into Tanner Creek where many will make their way to the ocean. The hatchery raises millions of fish a year and as one can guess many don’t make it back as they are captured out in the ocean by recreational and commercial fisherman and many become food for other animals.

Next time we’ll discuss the general area of the hatchery and some of the local communities. See you then!

The boys are tuckered out from chasing the great blue heron

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