Port Angeles: Elwha hatchery experimenting with “natural” ponds

Half-acre concrete ponds adjacent to the Elwha River swirl with 350,000 salmon.

Salmon gather at the edges looking for free food.

Wire nets protect the fish from the outside world.

But this may not be the best way to prepare salmon to survive the harshness of nature.

“You’d think that salmon would have natural instincts,” said Emmett O’Connell, information officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“But when they’re raised artificially, they pick up bad habits.”

Bad hatchery habits include associating shadows with food, instead of danger, O’Connell said.

Wild salmon see a shadow as a predator. But hatchery salmon relate shadows to food.

That’s because people feeding the salmon cast a shadow on the water, O’Connell said.

In the wild, released hatchery salmon group together near shadows waiting to eat, he said.

Many times they get eaten.

So the Elwha Tribal Fishery is participating in an experiment using stumps, bugs and root wads to help hatchery fish learn the ways of wild salmon, O’Connell said.

As part of the congressionally funded Hatchery Reform project, hatchery workers have built a 1½-acre pond where 150,000 salmon swim in “natural” habitat, O’Connell said.

The full report appears in today’s Peninsula Daily News Clallam County edition. Click on “Subscribe” to have your copy delivered to your home or office.

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