Port Angeles officials react to loss at fish hatchery

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Scores of dead young coho salmon and steelhead trout have been buried in a hole in the ground not far from the Lower Elwha Klallam fish hatchery after they were found dead at the hatchery last weekend.

Now, tribal staff are figuring out what needs to happen at the hatchery, located off Stratton Road across the street from the Elwha River Casino, to prevent a similar fish loss in the future.

“We’re still assessing and still looking for ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Doug Morrill, natural resources manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.

In a Thursday interview, Morrill said hatchery staff likely will know more next week about a pump failure that led to the deaths of at least 200,000 coho salmon, spawned last fall, and roughly 2,000 year-old steelhead trout last weekend.

Questions remain

Morrill said he could not yet estimate how much the dead fish were worth or how much permanent repairs, or any needed upgrades, to the hatchery’s secondary pump system might cost.

Hatchery staff restored water circulation quickly after the pump failure was discovered, tribal officials had said.

The secondary pump system, used to circulate ground water through the hatchery, had been in use since December 2012 because Olympic National Park’s Elwha Water Treatment Plant had not been providing enough treated river surface water to the hatchery.

The treatment plant, built as part of the $325 million Elwha River dam-removal and restoration project, has been operating at reduced capacity since fall because sediment released during dam removal has been unexpectedly finding its way into the inner workings of the plant.

The hatchery’s secondary pump system was not designed to be continuously used like it has been since December, Morrill added.

“The take-home message is that this is the backup system we were having to use,” Morrill said.

“So when this [went] down, there’s no backup for the backup.”

Morrill said the tribe has not ascribed blame in the death of the fish.

“The [National Park Service] didn’t kill the fish,” he said, adding that no thought has been given at this point to considering whether a request for compensation is warranted.

“We’re weighing our options and looking at what to do next,” Morrill said.

The estimated 200,000 dead coho represented about half of the 420,000 salmon on hand when the water pump failed, Morrill said, adding that hatchery staff released 299,755 coho last year.

The hatchery had about 120,000 steelhead trout in its pools when the pump stopped working and released a similar number last year, Morrill added.

The surviving fish will be released into the wild next spring as planned, Morrill said.

Probably suffocated

The fish that died likely suffocated in the still water that the pump should have been circulating, Morrill explained.

He compared the situation to a meeting room crowded with people packed shoulder-to-shoulder but with no air flowing through and all the windows and doors closed.

“The same thing happens in a stagnant pond, with no air going in and out,” Morrill said.

Morrill said there are no plans to actively move new young fish into the hatchery, though some naturally spawned fish from Indian Creek and Little River, both tributaries of the Elwha River, could find their way in on their own.

Although hatchery staff were hit hard by the fish loss, Morrill said, the entire Elwha River restoration is unprecedented and as such is creating river conditions and other challenges that have never been dealt with before.

“I hate to say we’re learning as we go along, but we certainly have to adapt as we find out more info about what’s going on in the river,” Morrill said.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 11. 2013 5:47PM
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