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Drought Becomes Deadly For Olympic Peninsula's Hatchery Fish

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This summer’s extreme drought is becoming increasingly deadly for fish in the northwest.

The state department of Fish and Wildlife had already lost about one and a half million juvenile fish in overheated rivers and streams in Washington at the end of July, due to this summer’s historically warm temperatures and low water levels.

But so far, they haven’t had to take the step that managers did last week at the Makah National Fish Hatchery.

“It was not an easy decision for us to make,” said Denise Hawkins, a fisheries division manager with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

She says with temperatures reaching nearly 70 degrees in the Tsoo-Yess River, disease was spreading in the hatchery.

Federal experts consulted with the tribe and looked at all the options, such as releasing fish early or continuing treatment with antibiotics. But Hawkins says the hatchery is fed by the river and there just isn’t enough water.

They had to euthanize about 85,000 juvenile Coho that were on station.

“These were fish that were not set to be released into the river until about 8 months from now. And in order to try to preserve the health of the fish that we are still keeping on station, these fish had to be euthanized,” Hawkins said.

The tribe had already taken action in early August, releasing 49,000 juvenile steelhead and 163,000 juvenile coho in the Tsoo-Yess River below the hatchery, about 8 months ahead of schedule. The hope was that this would relieve some of the pressure on ailing fish in the hatchery. But with the Tsoo-Yess at about a fifth of its normal level, Hawkins says conditions continued to decline.

“There’s a certain amount of water flow that has to pass through the raceways. Salmonids need lots of cool, clean, oxygenated water,” Hawkins said. “And due to the conditions, there was not enough water to be brought in to the hatchery to continue to keep all of the fish healthy on station.”  

Their hope is that they’ll now be able to better provide for the remaining 135,000 steelhead they’re rearing, as well as the adult fall Chinook that are expected to return soon.

Hawkins says only one other hatchery in Washington has had to take such drastic measures that she knows: the Leavenworth Fisheries Complex euthanized about 160,000 Spring Chinook fingerlings in July. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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