Heron Brae Botanical Services

Consulting & Teaching

Life and Death at Clear Creek Fish Hatchery

2008, by Heron Brae

Early this morning: enveloped in darkness, I’m pulling into the cryptic chain link fence on the western side of Fort Lewis Military Base. The gate is inconspicuously shrouded in vegetation, unmarked, un-notable, and too easy to miss. A man waits shivering with his bushy beard and cap, ushering in us volunteers in the wee hours.  I like the way he asks me “Are you ready to get wet?” with a wry smile.  “Hell yeah, I am!”  I have no idea what I am getting into. But I do like the thrill of being let onto a military base in the secret darkness of pre-dawn, and I’m stocked with my full-body rain gear and rubber boots. 

The first thing I see when I find my destination is a long line of people standing around on a concrete platform surrounded by chainlink fences, wrapped in warm things and armed with coolers. A large rectangle pool sloshes with cool stream water. They are waiting for the salmon.

 “Where’s your cooler?” they ask.  “Cooler??”  I thought I was here to volunteer to spawn salmon, and my unfamiliarity with the process is obvious. These people are waiting for as long as it takes to fill their coolers with food.  The hatchery donates many of the leftover salmon carcasses after the eggs and milt are removed to create the next generation of hatchery salmon.

I find the other volunteers milling around in a pack next to the fish pool. Since I still don’t know what I’m doing, I ask people questions. As the light grows brighter in the sky, I learn an older Vietnamese woman’s favorite way to cook salmon: in egg rolls; I learn the story of a young private in fatigues who is there for the first time with his small daughter on his back; I watch old friends tease and learn that many of these long standing volunteers don’t even like salmon—they give their share away.  The crowd reflects a huge diversity of types of people—in age, cultural background, and race—brought together by salmon.

My purpose as an intern for the Nisqually Tribe in salmon recovery is to learn about how the hatchery system works, and to be close to the fish.  I want to feel their weight in my hand, look a their silver skin and learn to identify species, know the shape and anatomy of their bodies, understand a piece of their spawning by seeing the process in a hatchery.

The things I have learned about the hatchery system are phenomenal. This hatchery, built in 1993, is owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, operated by the Nisqually Tribe, and partially funded by the City of Tacoma as court mandated retribution for their salmon-damaging power dams farther up the watershed at Alder Reservoir. The epidemic of hydroelectric dams is perhaps the single most damaging factor threatening salmon populations.  But perhaps lesser known is the dangers that hatcheries themselves pose to wild salmon.

European colonizers had arrived to this region in the mid nineteenth century feeling entitled to the abundant natural resources, including the stunning runs of salmon that provided the staple food for the indigenous people of this land. Early in the twentieth century, after decades of carrying out policies designed to displace and steal resources from native people, the government realized that salmon populations were in danger because of unsustainable damming, logging, farming, and commercial overfishing. The government had to find a way to maintain and increase fish populations without giving up the addiction to cheap hydropower and continual industrial development.

The Government decided that for every dam that displaced a natural salmon run, a hatchery would be installed as a compromise.  This seemed like a way to sustain and even increase the number of fish that an ecosystem could produce. But problems with hatcheries started emerging.  Biological weakness was evident in the farmed salmon stocks; they contracted diseases and died at large rates, and spread weak genes and diseases to the wild populations. 

One thing I reflect on is the ecological trade-offs that we have made in attempting to manage natural resources in ways that we understand.  The Clear Creek Hatchery began this run of hatchery Chinook—the bigger, more valuable salmon—and displaced a native run of chum, a later-running salmon which are often practically disintegrating by the time it reaches home: not a cash crop.  To build the hatchery, they built a dam and created a pond that feeds their pools.  So, they made some wetlands to offset the damage of the development.

Back to the present. When something finally starts to happen in the salmon pool, it is slow. Four men with chest waders get into the long pool holding a big weighted net and start pushing the fish toward us.  They get the splashing fish up to the near end and funnel the fish through a gate into a holding area. Many onlookers gaze over the side of the pool.  When all the fish are in the pen, a guy wades through the splashing fray and starts moving the barrier inward to shrink the space. The fish respond, squeezing their bodies closer to one another, vigorously splashing large drops of water in protest.  I am enamored by their power; I want to know what it feels like to wade through a thick pool of fighting giant salmon. 

At this point two workers, armed with large netted scoops, begin pulling fish out of the water onto two concrete holding areas.  As the fish are exposed to air, more and more of them flopping on the concrete, the experience is thrilling, fascinating, yet hard to watch.  They pound themselves and flap and gasp for breath, and as the area becomes more crowded they began to squirt their eggs and milt into the mess—one last ditch effort to procreate in their moment of stress.  The orange-pink eggs, the size of large tapioca balls, spew from an orifice below the tail fin on the females and the milky semen from the males mix on the concrete amidst stomping boots and the swinging of baseball bats at the fishes heads.  The sound!  flaplfaplfapflapSplatFlapSsssplatWhapwHaP! And the colors!  The patterns of the fish! How many species? I ask.  I am told there is only one species, but these all look different. Age, and time in the ocean give them spots.

Today is the last of the fall Chinook run, and the eggs are not being saved to spawn because they have several million fertilized eggs already.  Usually the fish are handled one by one, clubbed over the head, and more carefully cut open so as not to bruise the eggs or milt for spawning.  However, these eggs are going to a distributor to package with soy sauce and ship to Japan. It is hard to imagine these bloody eggs pouring from this beaten, squirming fish into a messy five-gallon bucket as gourmet snacks.

I introduce myself as the intern and Bill, who knew I was coming, invites me down near the fish to “cut some eggs.” Bill hands me a sharp hook-like knife, somewhat like an envelope opener with finger holds, and shows me briefly how to grab a female by her gill flaps, hold her lower body between my legs to stabilize her, and slice a clean line starting at the opening where the eggs come from all the way up her belly. It’s tricky, fast, slippery business, yet the slimy orange eggs spill forth easily. The man who is working next to me, Adam, is helpful enough and not condescending, which I often experience when I am the only woman working with men.  I feel special standing down in the pit with many onlookers above; I’m in the middle of the action.  I am soon completely covered in blood and fish parts, my gloves soaking.  I feel a surge of pride in my ability to do dirty, hard work.

Some of the fish are still gasping as the folks in the concrete pen toss them onto the rack for us to cut.  I wince—a little horrified but trying not to be—at the first one that is still wriggling as I cut her belly open.  I think about what it must feel like to have your belly cut open so fiercely while you are still alive. Adam tells me if the fish are still alive to reach in and tear out their gill so they die faster. Or, you can let them sit a minute and they die in the air 

My resolution is to remain thankful and reverent to these beings, even as I slice them quickly, keeping up with the pace of the work.  I remember their long lives, giving them thanks for their bodies, which will serve as food for many people.  I also remember that it is these fishes time to die—they have traveled all this way to serve one purpose—to spawn. If we were not artificially creating the process, they would die within a matter of days.  It is their way; I give thanks for them as they go. In my conflicting grief at my own violent actions and my thrill to be handling real fish, doing real work to procure food to sustain people, I think of the trade-offs we make.  Many humans have made destructive choices, such as participating in genocide and colonization of other people, and the earth. Many of us now live an unbalanced way of life.  By creating this hatchery, we are struggling to feed ourselves and keep the ecological web functioning, even at a nominal level.  We have traded the wild for the cultivated, the simple for the technological.

I prefer the wild. I wish these fish were wild fish and I was bare-hand fishing in the un-dammed creek. But I also want to understand how we have chosen to do things. I want to know about life and death and the colonization of wild things—in my body, with my muscles. This is my education: to see and feel the life of creatures intertwined with mine, and the reality of what is.

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