By Lydia Denney / ldenney@chronline.com

Every year, the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery releases 7.5 million fish — up to 2,500 fish per day in the fall months — said Jamie Murphy, a natural resources biologist.

Throughout the year, the hatchery focuses on teaching visitors the five H’s of a salmon’s life cycle: hatchery, hydropower, harvest, habitat and high seas. Murphy has worked at the hatchery for 12 years and hopes the hatchery can educate visitors on the creation of hydropower and raising fish.

A map of eastern Lewis County is seen on the wall of the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center Monday afternoon in Salkum.

“We like people to get interested in (the hatchery),” Murphy said. “It’s something that we’re proud of and we want other people to be proud of.”

The hatchery was built in 1968 as the world’s largest salmon hatchery. Though the hatchery no longer owns that title, Tacoma Power has taken steps to improve the hatchery conditions, Murphy said. In 2010, the hatchery was rebuilt and redesigned to make the processes more efficient and the hatchery more nature-like. Pools were redesigned to lower the risk of disease, sorting facilities were created for better efficiency and more.

“We’ve lost up to 50 percent of our fish from one disease before,” Murphy said.

Along with hatchery operations, the visitor center was also updated to include more interactive, educational activities. Inside, surrounded by colorful walls and decorations, visitors can run a marble simulation that represents a salmon’s journey from the hatchery to the ocean and back, or color a picture and add it to the wall of art children have made.

Other activities include a game that tests a visitor’s ability to sort between hatchery salmon and native fish and a hanging wall of fiberglass salmon of different weights that demonstrate their various sizes. In the background, visitors will hear sounds of the ocean; waves crashing and sea lions barking.

Drawings from school children hang on the wall of the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center Monday afternoon in Salkum.

During the summer, the hatchery will sometimes have a college intern who can take people on tours of the visitor center and hatchery. If no one is available to lead a tour, visitors can go on a self-guided tour by following the blue fish that create a path throughout the hatchery, with informational signs along the way.

One of the areas that visitors can observe on the self-guided tour is the separating facilities, where adult fish who come to the hatchery are counted, sorted and sent to different parts of the hatchery depending on their type and whether or not they started their own lives in a hatchery.

During the separation process, DNA and scale samples are taken from the fish before they are sent to the ponds. The fish are also checked for a coded wire tag (CWT), a small, magnetized device that helps identify a fish. Another way fish are often identified as hatchery fish is if their adipose fin is clipped. The adipose fin is clipped on juvenile fish at the hatchery where, on average, 75,000 fish have their adipose fin removed every day.

Reporter Lydia Denney holds up a Spring Chinook Salmon Monday afternoon in Salkum.

The self-guided tour also allows visitors to view the hatchery’s holding ponds and juvenile raceways. Holding ponds are where adult fish are kept before spawning and the raceways are home to juvenile fish that are still growing, which can be spring Chinook, fall Chinook and Coho salmon.

“The hatchery tries to mimic the wild as much as possible,” Murphy said. “What we’ll do is we’ll pull the screens and the fish can leave whenever they want… If (the fish) aren’t quite ready, they can sit in here for another couple weeks at least.”

Last, but certainly not least, visitors can view the fish ladder, how adult fish return to the hatchery. During the fall, the hatchery sees more and more visitors come to fish at their sites near the fish ladder, Murphy said.

“(Fishing) should start picking up as more fish come up,” Murphy said. “If you stop at the Blue Creek launch, you’ll see a lot more traffic down there.”

Past the fish ladder is another fishing site that is also ADA accessible. Built in 2007, the ADA accessible fishing ramp allows visitors to fish at different levels, from 2,500 CFS up to 14,000 CFS. There is another ADA accessible fishing site at Blue Creek, which is close by at the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery. The only things visitors need to fish at the hatchery are fishing gear and a fishing license.

Scott Gibson, a natural resource biologist, holds up a salmon as Missy Baier, a fisheries technician, uses a metal detector to check for hooks at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Monday afternoon in Salkum.

Murphy said in the past few years, the hatchery has had poor fish returns but that they have continued to try practices that track fish and fight predation of salmon after they leave the hatchery.

“We’re not doing anything different, but we’re doing everything we can,” Murphy said.

Some of the solutions the hatchery has tried include putting up nets to prevent birds from eating the fish and contracting with a company whose employees will harass birds that try to land on the pond.

“In the past, we have had birds land and eat so many fish in 30 seconds that they couldn’t fly off again,” Murphy said. “We lost a lot of fish, so we make sure we have that practice in place.”

Another issue affecting returns was that the hatchery didn’t know how many fish were dying or getting eaten after leaving the hatchery, so they started using passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags to track fish, Murphy said.

“You see so many anglers going, ‘Tacoma (Power) and the (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) are just ruining the fisheries,’ and then when they see the process they go, ‘Oh wow, they’re actually doing all these great things,’” Murphy said.

For more information about the hatchery, visit the Tacoma Public Utilities website at www.mytpu.org/tacomapower/fish-wildlife-environment/.

Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery

199 Salmon Ln.

Salkum, WA 98582

www.mytpu.org/tacomapower/fish-wildlife-environment/cowlitz-river-project/cowlitz-fisheries-programs/cowlitz-salmon-hatchery.htm