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Hatchery workers clip off a tiny fin from each tiny fish.

Hatchery workers round up the larger fish in nets to release in the wild.
Visit to the Hatchery
by Karen Fitzgerald, Earthwatch Teacher Fellow, Illinois

When I first saw salmon in the flesh at the hatchery, I was swept away by their hugeness, their deep bluish beauty, as they undulated gracefully through the water.

The hatchery is a well-intentioned effort to increase the numbers of salmon in the river for fisherman, and to restore the wild salmon population. Over the last century, the salmon have declined dramatically because of too much fishing, pollution from logging and farming, and dikes and dams that prevent the salmon from swimming to and from the ocean.

The hatchery provides the young salmon a safe environment where there are no predators or poisons and plenty of food. Eggs from wild salmon are fertilized, and after they hatch, the young salmon are kept at the hatchery until they are large enough to survive in the river on their own.

Unfortunately, the hatchery is a poor imitation of the great Skagit River. The hatchery fish are crowded into small, rectangular, concrete pools, where they remain for the first year of life. At about two inches in length, the salmon are pumped through a tube into a building where they are briefly anesthetized so that workers can clip off a tiny fin on their backbone. This marks them as hatchery fish as opposed to wild fish, telling fishermen it is legal to take them out of the river.

When the fish are let out into the river, suddenly they must learn to find food on their own and to watch out for predators and other dangers. Many die because they are unprepared for this. These fish are also much more susceptible to diseases than wild salmon because of the crowded conditions in the hatchery. A lot of excrement in a small amount of space attracts bacteria and disease organisms. Sometimes the hatchery fish pass on diseases to the wild salmon and they compete with them for food, so some people think the hatcheries cause more harm than good for the wild salmon.

I felt especially bad for the chinook salmon I saw at the hatchery. They are the largest of the species. The hatchery manager, Steve Stout, said were difficult to domesticate. Unlike the coho salmon, they fight their handlers, even biting them at times, in their zeal to be in the wild again.

Photos courtesy of Earthwatch