Washington salmon fishermen and others were furious to learn that as many as 6.2 million Chinook fry died last Friday when a state hatchery lost power during a windstorm and a backup generator failed to start up.
“Wow. So stupid Doesn’t anyone test their generators?” posted guide Brian Oldfield in the comments below a link to our website and a WDFW news release that came out very late yesterday afternoon.
“The words that are coming out of my mouth right now …,” fellow guide Mark Ervig posted.
“There goes Area 13 again. Sounds like some hatchery management adjustments are in order. This is unacceptable, Director Susewind,” wrote Dave Wright.
“Will there be consequences for not being prepared? Nah. Just to the salmon,” posited Michael Rodriguez.
“Seems these things happen quite often. I’d like to see a total number of lost fish such instances over the last five years for each West Coast state. I’d read that story,” added Chad Price.
“OK,” posted longtime Washington hook-and-bullet-world observer Dave Workman. “The department has 24 hours to replace the fish. How’s that for a solution?”
WDFW is in fact searching for replacement salmon for those that were being reared at Minter Creek Hatchery, at the north end of Carr Inlet near Purdy, according to agency hatchery manager Eric Kinne.
“Right now we’re looking at other facilities, even tribal facilities, for excess capacity,” he said this afternoon.
Kinne says that come next May and June, some level of release will occur, possibly with Chinook from as far away as the state’s Samish Hatchery, where a million-plus extra eggs were collected this fall primarily to help feed southern resident killer whales.
That could help backfill the “dent” Deep South Sound might otherwise see during 2022’s, 2023’s and 2024’s fisheries, not to mention the availability of the salmon for orcas.
But in the meanwhile, Kinne wasn’t ducking questions about what he termed a “devastating loss” in Monday’s press release, the latest in a recent series of disasters and mishaps that have struck WDFW hatcheries, which provide most of the fuel for state salmon and steelhead fisheries.
“It’s tough to explain this one,” he acknowledges. “I understand it for sure. We’re not happy either.”
Kinne says he spent part of today writing up a contract for a “root cause analysis” to get to the bottom of the failure.
He says that the hatchery’s backup 350 kVA diesel generator is tested monthly and its last annual service was 10 months ago.
When Friday’s high winds cut the power to the facility around 5:30 last Friday evening, the generator should have automatically turned on, keeping cool water flowing into 900 trays with 6,800 tiny Chinook each.
But it didn’t.
A WDFW staffer is at Minter around the clock and so when the motor didn’t start, they began working on it as well as calling nearby workers back in for help.
Kinne, who lives an hour and a half away in Rochester and actually worked at the facility for several years two decades ago, received a call and made his way north through the storm to help deal with the situation.
“There were branches all over the roads,” he says.
While some worked on the generator, others checked rearing ponds, which are fed by gravity.
That’s not the case for the water pouring through the Chinook trays, however. Spawned in late August and September, the fish are now about an inch long and while they still have their egg sacs, they need running water to bring oxygen to their gills.
Crews attempted to use gas-powered pumps to get creek water into the building and the trays but were largely unsuccessful, though they had better luck with later-arriving salmon stocks.
“We saved all of the coho that were in incubators, the chums that were in the incubators,” Kinne says.
The eggs of both species can survive for several hours if the water is drained away but the eggs are still kept moist, he says.
“Some the coho were outside in the rearing ponds and were not affected,” he adds.
Crews were ultimately able to start the generator after nearly three hours — right before the local public utility district finally got the power back on.
Kinne says the outage occurred at the “most inopportune time” because it came with the “highest number” of young salmon in incubation.
The majority of trays that held the Chinook are being poured into a holding pond and the true magnitude of the loss will become clearer when any survivors reach the “swim up” stage between now and May and June, when they were otherwise scheduled for release.
Kinne said the 5.7 million falls believed lost represents the “majority” of production for release into the lower Deschutes River and from Minter Creek for sport fisheries.
When you include the half million White River spring kings fry that also died and were being reared for orcas, the 6.2 million lost Chinook is roughly 9 percent of WDFW’s overall statewide production, and certainly a higher percentage of Puget Sound’s.
It wasn’t immediately clear what sort of dollar loss it all represented.
“Not a lot spent to date because they were still in incubation,” Kinne says. “The majority of the cost comes for feeding and marking and tagging.”
The bigger loss could be down the road when the returning adults would have attracted angler effort.
Deep South Sound, or Marine Area 13 as it is also known, has become a good spot to target Chinook, especially in Budd Inlet’s Big and Little Fish Traps for Deschutes-bound kings.
Even as the cost of redundancy for backups to backup systems would be high considering the 80-odd hatcheries WDFW operates across the state, the predictable nature of fall, winter and early spring windstorms, and the increasing importance of salmon to fisheries and orcas makes testing generators at the facilities much more often a good idea.