Lack of funding could dam up creative ideas to keep Naselle facilityNASELLE, WASH. - The hatchery feeds a lot of mouths in these parts.

It feeds the fish - salmon and steelhead that run in the Naselle River, a river that feeds the brown, shallow waters of Willapa Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

And those fish nourish the gillnetters on the bay. The fish also lure anglers during the fall - anglers who nurture this small town and the Willapa region with their tourist dollars.

But not everyone is happy with the state-run hatchery, one of three that stock Willapa Bay. Some say poor egg management at the Naselle facility limits salmon harvests. And the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has long had it on the budget chopping block, citing relatively high operating costs, much-needed repairs, and the lack of any tribal or endangered species entanglements that would complicate a closure.

Bryan Chambers, an 18-year-old studying aquaculture, counts the number of rainbow trout as he returns them to the water at the small hatchery at the Naselle Youth Camp.

LORI ASSA - The Daily AstorianNow more than ever, the hatchery's future is in question, and the community has come to realize it cannot depend on WDFW alone to keep the struggling facility going. Some don't trust the department with the responsibility - it cut back production slightly this year. The Naselle Youth Camp, a juvenile offender rehabilitation center, and the Naselle Grays River Valley School District have proposed a partnership that would run the hatchery as a vocational aquaculture training program, but will the schools have the money and expertise to do the job?

Local state legislators rescued the facility again this legislative session, allowing it to produce until June of 2005, but at yet to-be-determined levels.

"Closure for me is just not an option," said Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen, Wash.). "It's a critical facility for Naselle and Willapa Bay, and we're going to do everything we can to keep it open."

Dumb ideaIn 2003, the facility was responsible for about half the chinook salmon and approximately one-third of the coho salmon production in Willapa Bay, releasing more than 3 million chinook and almost 400,000 coho smolts.

That production is important to commercial fishermen like Steve Gray of Chinook, Wash. He and the 30 or so other gillnetters who still work the bay caught more than 7,000 chinook and 52,000 coho last year.

"Does it make sense to close the Naselle hatchery?" asked Gray. "That's the dumbest thing they could do."

Closure also seemed like a stupid idea to Rick Smith, the natural resources superintendent at the Naselle Youth Camp. When he and other administrators at the work camp, which is run jointly by the Washington Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Naselle Grays River Valley School District, learned earlier this year that the hatchery was scheduled to be mothballed, they knew its importance to the local economy and started brainstorming for ways to keep it open.

The youth camp runs its own aquaculture program and small hatchery now, producing all the rainbow trout for Pacific County's lakes, about 20,000 fish every year. Administrators think they can expand the vocational aquaculture program to the Naselle hatchery. Partnering with WDFW and community fishing groups, students from the school district and the camp would run the hatchery while learning about biology, fish development and the environment.

Vocational training"What better way to provide a vocational experience than running a live hatchery?" asked Smith. "And it will keep the fish runs alive on the Naselle River."

It's a creative idea to keep the hatchery going, but Smith admits he has no money for the project. With 21/2 full-time employees, the Naselle facility now costs WDFW $302,000 annually. He and the other camp administrators envision the hatchery run by a community board made up of legislators, WDFW, the youth camp, school district and local recreational and commercial fishing groups.

The board would apply for educational, fish enhancement and environmental grants from federal and state agencies such as the Bonneville Power Administration, state fish recovery boards, enhancement groups and salmon recovery nonprofits such as Long Live the Kings. Smith believes the planned mix of educational and environmental programs will make the project especially attractive to potential donors and can deliver the needed dollars. Others are more skeptical.

"Long-term (funding) is the problem," said Rep. Brian Hatfield (D-Raymond, Wash.), a legislator who has fought with WDFW for many years to keep the hatchery open. "The youth camp and the Naselle School District are a great place to start, and it would be a nice match because they already have the vocational programs. ... It would be a nice way to go, but it wouldn't make the money appear."

Bob Lake, president of the Willapa Bay Gillnetters Association, is doubtful the schools can successfully manage the hatchery on their own. He has been disappointed with WDFW's management, and would rather see the Willapa Bay Fisheries Enhancement Group, a nonprofit that works in partnership with state, take over the site.

Poor return rateFor years, there haven't been enough salmon, particularly chinook, returning to the hatchery for it to gather enough eggs to meet its production goals. And according to Lake, the poor egg take limits fishing in Willapa Bay.

Plenty of salmon return to the Naselle River, usually three or four years after they have been released. But they don't necessarily make it back into the hatchery - a design problem with the 1970s-era facility that has never been fixed, according to Ron Warren, the fish program manager for WDFW's coastal region.

"The egg recovery program at Naselle stinks," Lake said.

The Willapa Bay fishery is managed by WDFW to ensure enough fish return to the hatcheries to provide the eggs for the next year's brood stocks, Warren said. But because only a small percentage of fish returning to the river make it to the Naselle hatchery, many hatchery fish must be left unharvested.

Unlike the other two hatcheries for the bay (located in Nemah and Forks Creek, Wash.) the Naselle site lacks a weir, a fence that runs across the river to help collect the returning fish. State legislators secured state funds for a permanent weir and other needed capital repairs at Naselle, but much of that money was sacrificed for other hatchery projects in a compromise this year with WDFW to keep the facility open. However, administrators still hope to have a temporary weir at the site this fall.

The lack of the infrastructure spending at Naselle is frustrating for fishermen like Lake and Gray, who have seen their numbers dwindle over the years because of decreasing salmon prices and increasing regulations.

"It's like building a new school and not spending the money on the teachers," said Gray.

Camp administrators haven't yet received approval for the partnership project from the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, and no one, including the legislators, is quite sure what a community partnership for the hatchery would precisely look like. But officials are determined the community can do the job.

"I'm confident they can make this one of the best hatcheries around," said Blake.

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