Right now, in a dark, damp building at the Big Creek Fish Hatchery, 1.8 million salmon eggs grow.
They fill row after row of the rectangular man-made ponds, clustered together by the thousands. Employees work in the dark, using only dim headlights to prepare, sort and collect the orange eggs throughout the three-month growing process. Cold water, pulled directly from the creek that flows alongside the hatchery, rushes through the rows.
The lack of light and movement of water simulates what the cluster of eggs would experience if they were spawned in the shadows of Big Creek itself, which is important to the long-term survival of the fish.
It’s spawning season for fall Chinook, and with the help of the fishery employees, over 4 million salmon will be released from hatcheries in Clatsop County next spring.
At Big Creek, the focus is getting through the season. Employees are up early, doing everything they can to make the process go smoothly and help the hatchery attain its production goal. The rate of success, however, depends on more than the gloved hands working with the eggs in the dark.
Conversations across the country in Washington, D.C., will also impact the future of hatcheries on the North Coast.
The U.S. Senate version of a federal spending bill for commerce, justice and science programs has the potential to increase funding for salmon management and recovery. Part of that money would go toward the Mitchell Act, which has helped fund programs that mitigate the impact of water diversions on the Columbia River since 1938.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said the bill would help coastal Oregon, “from strengthening the coastal infrastructure to bolstering salmon recovery efforts ...”
For the past few budget cycles, Mitchell Act funding has remained constant. This time, the number could jump from $16 million up to $25 million going out the door to operators throughout the Columbia basin, according to James Dixon, of the sustainable fisheries division at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“If the increase that’s been requested sticks, it could be a $4 (million) to $9 million increase, depending on how Congress actually specifies what they mean by $25 million to Mitchell,” he said. “Either way, this would be a significant, multiple-million dollar increase.”
Historically, the Mitchell Act funded the construction of hatcheries, such as Big Creek. Now, the vast majority of Mitchell Act funding goes to production, which leaves little formaintenance.
“Some of these facilities are approaching 60 or 70 years old, and while there’s been replacement and maintenance enough to keep the lights on, keep the water flowing and keep the fish in the ponds, that’s not optimum in a lot of cases,” Dixon said. “Big portions of the facilities are due either for complete renovations or rebuilds.”
“This isn’t the kind of money that can do that,” he clarified. “I think adequately addressing the maintenance issues would take years of successive, large additional funding.”
Basically, he said, hatcheries have been perpetually underfunded.
On the ground at Big Creek, one of the two hatcheries funded by the Mitchell Act in Clatsop County, the season is off to a strong start. Coho and Chinook salmon have come back up the ladder, thousands of new salmon eggs are incubated every day and they’re on track to meet their production goals. To the unassuming eye, the hatchery seems to run smoothly.
But small details cause big problems for fish production.
Large, concrete ponds hold millions of salmon on the property, and that concrete has been corroded by decades of use.
“The pond walls, there’s no slurry on the top,” Ross McDorman, a senior fish and wildlife technician at Big Creek, said. “It’s all aggregate that’s exposed now.”
Securing funding to begin repairing the concrete pools is necessary, McDorman said. When the fish enter the ponds, they’re roughly a centimeter long, or shorter, which means even the smallest cracks in the concrete can cause problems.
“Any crack that’s this big or bigger,” he said, holding his fingers about a centimeter apart, “we could potentially lose fish in. Hundreds of fish could potentially be lost to that crack.”
Some of the concrete was coated about five years ago, but there’s more work to be done.
“The concrete is really important. It’s really the structure that we use to raise fish,” Scott Patterson, the fish propagation manager at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said. “It’s kind of like the gas to the car. If you don’t have any gas, you might have a nice car but it doesn’t go anywhere.”
But before the improvements can be seriously considered, the funding has to come.
The hatcheries have received the same amount of funding for the past five years, which means there isn’t enough money for everything that needs to be addressed, according to Patterson.
“It’s really hard to maintain the program’s production, staff, maintenance at the level it needs to be,” he said. “If we still operate in the same level for the next couple budget cycles, we’d probably be looking at reduced production to our fish.”
The situation is similar at Klaskanine, another Clatsop hatchery funded by the Mitchell Act.
“Right now, we’re just in a place where our federal budget is not really adequate,” Patterson said.