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New Chief Joseph Salmon Hatchery: Restoring the Runs, Restoring the Culture

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Bridgeport, WA—It’s taken over half a century to get the process started, but ground has finally been broken on a salmon hatchery at Chief Joseph Dam. The hatchery should go on-line in about a year; four years after that, the first salmon from this hatchery will return. Ultimately, the hatchery will mitigate the loss of salmon to Indian tribes upriver and help renew a culture built around salmon.

Joe Peone, Director of Fish and Wildlife for the Confederated Tribes on the Colville Reservation, explained what this means. “It’s the ability of the tribe to sustain its cultural identity through ceremonies and traditions. It’s the ability for the males of the family to feed and provide for the needs of their family. It’s to demonstrate the ability of the tribe to adapt and manage these chinook for the benefit of all; it’s not just the Colville tribe and the local constituents. These spring and summer chinook go out as juveniles through the Columbia River and work their way north to Alaska along Vancouver Island and come back four or five years later and there’s a lot of harvest on these fish. It’s huge in terms of a project this big that can provide for so many people.”

Phase I was completed with the construction of four houses for tribal employees, a domestic water supply, RV pads with power and camping sites for tribal members. Two acclimation sites upriver will each hold 400,000 young chinook to overwinter and be released from those sites in the spring. Five wells have also been constructed to supply groundwater to the hatchery.

Phase 2 is now underway and involves construction of the hatchery itself, a massive water supply system required to maintain proper temperatures, filtration and other treatment for the hundreds of trays, and tanks needed to incubate and rear 2.9 million Chinook salmon annually.

Patrick Phillips was hired this spring as hatchery manager. He has 21 years of experience in hatchery work with the State of Washington. When he first looked at the plans with three water sources, ample rearing space, its own fish ladder and a brood collection operation for wild stock he said, “All was great, but then I got into the intricate details of design. We found issues where we needed to make some changes.”

Change, of course, costs money—but Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) made a commitment to get it right the first time. With that kind of support, Phillips met with an engineer with lots of experience in Oregon and in five hours they outlined 38 changes. He explained you look at hatcheries as something functional today but designed to still be functional in 50 years.

Chief Joseph Hatchery will rest on 15 acres of land directly across the Columbia River from Chief Joseph Dam with the building occupying 15,000 square feet. When large enough the young fish will be transferred to outdoor ponds and raceways before eventually going to the acclimatization ponds and subsequently released directly into the Okanagan River where they should return to in 3 to 5 years to provide both fishing opportunities and to spawn directly in the river.

The final part of Phase 2 will be a fish ladder and facility for holding brood stock where returning fish will be held for egg harvest to continue the program. Various other buildings include an office, shop, storage, and multi-purpose room for meetings and educational tours.

Phillips said only wild stock fish, native to the Okanagan River, will be used. There will be a harvest component and an integrated program to supply the fish for the acclimation ponds. He added that if wild fish numbers drop below a certain threshold no fish would be taken for brood stock. “The harvest component doesn’t get interrupted and that’s a big key for tribal cultures, that we will still have that harvest component.”

The cultural aspect is critical in planning this hatchery. Phillips said salmon presently exist in the Okanagan River but, “The component for tribal harvest and subsistence is relatively small. The opportunity for tribal members to come in and harvest fish, there’s not much area. There’s some right at the dam and a smaller amount on the Okanagan itself.”

Barb Aripa, an elder of the Colville Confederated Tribes, remembers her dad fishing here during World War II when polio kept him from enlisting. “A lot of women were left without their spouses who were in the military. He’d catch enough salmon to hand out to these women and to elders who had no one to fish or hunt for them. They’d just pray someone would come by and give them fish or a deer.”

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Aripa learned from her grandmother how to clean and fillet a salmon. “Grandma said ‘I want you to learn to gut the fish, cut the fins off, put them in a separate container and all we don’t use we take back to the water. That’s what will bring life back to the salmon. That’s our Indian way.’ After being filleted they would hang out to wind dry.”

Tribes throughout the region were always dependent on salmon but those who remember what it was once like and remember “the Indian way” are becoming fewer. Barb Aripa still remembers. “Now that’s one of the things I do here when we have dinners at the longhouse. They say, ‘Barb, we need you to do the salmon.’ Okay, I go. I’m no spring chicken any more. I’ve got to teach somebody how to do this.”

Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams have had even greater impacts on more tribes than those dependent on salmon ascending the Okanagan River. Upriver tribes have lost their source of salmon entirely.

Colville tribal chairman Mike Finley talks of the history. “At Kettle Falls, people came from all areas whether it was Washington, Idaho, Montana or Canada. The Colville tribes were the caretakers, it was part of our homeland, but we still welcomed everyone who would come and fish. They all got a piece and we want to remember that. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our culture. We want to carry that forward in the future. There are tribes further upriver such as the Coeur d’Alene’s and Spokane’s, due to a situation that’s not their fault, cannot fish their homelands.”

“If we have ample fish, we could share and continue this piece of our history and culture and we want to do that. We want to share with our family and friends and our tribal relatives and we’ll continue to do that as long as I’m around.”

Ernie Stensgar, vice chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “We are very appreciative that the Colville Tribe shares their harvest with us for our feasts, traditional ceremonies and funerals. We wholeheartedly support their efforts to have a fish hatchery because of our good relations with the Colville Tribe and their giving. Before western settlement, the Coeur d’Alene people fished for salmon at Spokane Falls and Kettle Falls and Hangman Creek and fishing was a vital part of our lives. After construction of dams we were unable to utilize salmon.”

Greg Abrahamson, chairman of the Spokane Tribe expressed similar thoughts. “The Colville’s have been very generous to some of us who have been cut off by both dams. We’re one of the tribes that can attest to the loss of fish and how detrimental it is, not only to the health of people, but the economics. Our people lived off the fish and it was part of our economics at one time.”

Peone explained funding for the hatchery saying the Power Planning Council budgeted $40 million and that additional funding is coming through Grant PUD as mitigation for Priest Rapids Dam and Wanapum Dam which impacted fish runs as well. That kicked the amount up to $50 million which goes to Bonneville Power Administration to fund the hatchery. Other PUD’s will be called on to provide operations and maintenance funding.

The plan is to eventually man the hatchery totally with tribal members but that must be delayed till people are trained. “We’re in the process of selecting tribal members to send to Mount Hood Community College in Oregon,” Peone said. “We have students there now in a two-year culturist degree program. Our first will graduate this June and a couple more will graduate a year from now and we’ll send three more down in September.”

“We also have a four-year degree program. We have four students now in that program. We’ve partnered with BPA at a 50/50 cost share basis.”

The construction phase is also supplying jobs. “We have around 30 tribal members working there now and are looking in the neighborhood of 35-45 to be working there,” Peone added.

Education, economics, and employment all will gain and there’s the long overdue fulfillment of an obligation, but perhaps the biggest gain will be in the maintenance and enhancement of a culture for many Indian people.