Episode 8: Kings of the Reach
Narrator: The Columbia River Basin, a massive watershed and terminus for hundreds of streams and rivers, reaching as far east as Yellowstone National Park. The great Columbia River is the lifeline that connects this vast ecosystem with the Pacific Ocean. For centuries, it provided a vital thoroughfare for salmon and steelhead migrating to their native spawning tributaries. With over 200 years of human expansion and development, the river has endured many changes resulting in momentous impacts on fish, habitat and native culture. Today new efforts and strategies are under way to recover its lost glory. Way of the Columbia takes you up river to explore its many tributaries and learn more about this important work.
Narrator: The Hanford Reach is a 51-mile stretch of the Columbia River that flows east from Priest Rapids Dam to an area suitably named White Bluffs for its ivory color. Here the Hanford Reach makes a long bend and continues south to Richland. Today Way of the Columbia explores current efforts to protect a group of salmon known as Up River Brights. These fall spawning Chinook, most broadly known as King Salmon, are prized for their size, sometimes topping the scales at 50 pounds. The majority of these fall spawners are born in the Hanford Reach and will eventually return to the very waters of their birth to spawn and die. Being an anadromous fish, the must first journey to the ocean where they’ll spend the majority of their life. This will take them some 350-river miles and along the way, they’ll navigate four dams. Once in the Pacific Ocean, they’ll live and grow for an average of three to four years before returning to the Reach.
Early settlers of Hanford Reach were confronted with an arid landscape overshadowed only by the bounty of the Columbia. The area we call White Bluffs today was once a town by that very name. Locals of White Bluffs were quick to declare their town’s superiority claiming the greatest fruit country on earth, the best climate in the state. And even the title of the most beautiful. While locals may have taken some liberties with their declarations, the town was productive and filled with happy residents.
For more than 80 years, people called White Bluffs home. But in 1943, it and a town down river called Hanford were depopulated for the war effort. It was decided that Hanford Reach would be an ideal location for the world’s first full scale plutonium production reactor. Decades passed while the Hanford Reach set inaccessible to the public. But in 1999, the 106th Congress introduced House Resolution 1314, designating the Hanford Reach as a recreational river. To further protect the 51-mile stretch, a Presidential Proclamation designated the Hanford Reach as a National Monument.
As modern day explorers began navigating and recreating in the Reach, they soon discovered a wealth of trophy fishing and undisturbed habitat. Experts that had already been studying the area were aware of the secrets held in the Reach. Together tribes, PUDs and agencies, such as Washington State Fish and Wildlife, have been working to protect and mitigate against human pressures. One such project is a program to establish optimal flow rates to protect spawning Chinook salmon.
Peter Graf: Typically, ah, a dam such as Priest Rapids Dam ah, releases water and generates electricity when there’s a demand for power, which is typically during the day. When people are awake, lights are on in the morning, when people get up and make coffee, ah, flow, power demand increases so flow increases. Then at night when people turn their lights off, power demand drops so flow drops. So that’s a typical pattern of, of load following. Production of energy at high flows during the day and then a corresponding drop in the energy needs at night and low flows at night.
But what we learned was that fall Chinook in Hanford Reach tend to build their redds and spawn during daylight. So they were building their redds and constructing redds, spawning during daylight, during those high flows. And what would happen is those high, those redds would, would end up being dried out during the winter months when flows dropped. So in the 80s Priest Rapids Dam, Grant County, started experimenting with ah, something called the reverse load factoring. So they took the typical flow pattern out of a hydro peaking dam, which is high during the day and low during the night, and flipped it. Now we have relatively low flows during the day. Ah, and that influences where fish spawn at an elevation lower in the river, at an elevation that we can keep wet during the winter.
So we’re on top of Priest Rapids Dam. Ah, downstream is the start of the Hanford Reach. We use Priest Rapids Dam to manage flow in the Reach using the reservoir behind us and the turbines and the spillway on the dam, we can control how much water ah, flows on Hanford Reach. During reverse load factoring, ah, we reduce flow ah, dropping the water level in the Reach and narrowing the river, limiting opportunities for Chinook to spawn high up on bars that will become dry during the winter months.
When we do our spawning group surveys, operators at Priest Rapids Dam temporarily drop flows particularly low for Paul and I to, to go out onto the bar and, and count redds.
Paul Hoffarth: This is absolutely amazing. This is all redds all through here. There’s never redds back here.
Peter: Priest Rapids Dam is just a couple miles upstream and it fluctuates up and down ah, following power demand. But this time of the year, Priest Rapids runs what we call reverse load following or reverse load factoring, which um, is a flow constraint intended to manage where fish spawn and limit our high elevation spawning on the bar. So it runs flows. Intentionally we keep flows between 55 and 70,000 CFS during the day. The idea is that fish likely spawn and build their redds during the daylight hours so we keep our flows at a manageable level during the day, a level that we can then keep wet all winter long, make sure the redds and the eggs stay wet.
Narrator: By intentionally reducing the flow at Priest Rapids Dam, the river below narrows. This forces the Chinook to spawn in lower locations better suited for egg survival. Prior to the flow management program, eggs were deposited in higher locations susceptive to drying out in the winter months. Chinook deposit their eggs in gravely nests known as redds. They cover these nests with surrounding gravel and rocks for protection. But if the redd sits above the water for too long, it can dry out, destroying the eggs.
Peter: Paul and I are going to be walking Vernita Bar looking at, at the elevation the redds are here distributed out on the bar. Ah, we’re going to be counting redds by elevation and from that, from that data, we’ll decide um, what the minimum flow is for the winter.
The idea is we want to keep these redds watered out through the winter. Probably the most important factor for these fish to keep the eggs wet. So during spawning, beginning in mid-October, we manage flows to limit opportunities to spawn up high up here. We want them to spawn down lower at a level that we can keep wet all winter.
Paul: If you look compared to the areas just down, just at lower elevations and in the channel on the far side, they’re just literally covered in redds. They’re side by side all adjacent to each other. Here’s there’s just a few scattered ah, so the hard part now is also trying to determine this is a redd, that’s a redd. There’s so many redds and they’re over the top of each other and so we’ve got to – one individual redd may have four, five, even six egg pockets. And so the fish will come in, dig down, lay a portion of its eggs, cover those eggs up, lay another ah, batch of eggs, cover that up. And so by the time they’ve completed spawning, you’ve got this huge area where they’ve laid their eggs. Ah, so it is fairly effective at keeping the population spawning at the lower elevations.
Peter: When we come out earlier, we see more holes, the nests. The, the female builds the hole and we see that early at the start of spawning and then after she lays her eggs she gets in front of that hole and buries it and ah, fills in all these holes. So earlier in the year, that’s a lot of big kind of empty hole places, a big substrate. Now it’s all covered over. Paul: Ahhh, I got a mess. I want to dig this one for just a second. It may not be, but if we dig down right about here, I should find… It’s pretty soft in there. A lot of dirt in there but I know we’re going to find something in here if we look. A lot of shells, a lot of dirt. There they are. That’s why I dig down. There you can start seeing all the eggs. They’re all this deep. Yeah, they dig down quite a ways. Well we’ll just put them back to sleep. There we are.
Peter: It’s amazing the size of these rocks that these fish turn over.
Paul: Yeah, that’s, that’s kind of typical.
Peter: It’s a big substrate. Completely turn this whole bar over.
Paul: Most likely this is going to be a, a new record for number of fish spawning in this area of the river.
Eric Lauver: My name is Eric Lauver. I work for Grant PUD as a biologist. We are collecting natural origin broodstock for the Priest Rapids Hatchery fall Chinook program. Ah, we’ve got fisherman who have volunteered. Actually, they’re participating in a derby. And the whole idea behind trying to catch these natural origin fish, or wild fish if you will, is to so we can ah, get more natural origin genes in our hatchery program. We don’t want a domesticated, heavily domesticated product coming out of our hatchery. We want to put as many ah, as much wild genetics as we can along with our hatchery genetics. They found over the years that heavily domesticated multi-generational ah, hatchery fish don’t survive as well in the wild, so we try to keep those natural genes in there.
Narrator: In a joint effort to widen the genetic diversity within the Chinook Broodstock Hatchery Program, an annual three-day derby takes place where anglers catch Chinook spawning in the main stem of the Hanford Reach to be used at the hatchery. Dubbed King of the Reach, this derby offers prizes and the opportunity to fish the river out of season. While competing to be crowned King of the Reach, anglers are also participating in the very difficult task of random gene sampling. This occurs as boats spread out along the river catching fish from a broad area.
Eric: Ah, all these boats have a live well of some type. Some guys have just an ice chest but they’ve all got little water pumps in them to keep the fresh water flowing or to keep oxygenated water flowing on the fish. That’s what we’re talking about. Is he going to fit in there? That’s a dandy.
Male speaker 5: What is that?
Eric: That’s a toad.
Male speaker 5: Oh my gosh. Am I going to be able to lift that? Oh, wow. Oh, shoot.
Eric: That’s what we’re talking about right there. Male speaker 5: Oh, I guess. That’s the King. That’s why they call it the King.
Eric: You got us another customer? Okay, we’re just dropped off. We’ll be right up. Thanks, bye. I don’t know the details of the derby but there are, I think every fish you catch improves your odds for ah, a drawing and a raffle. But there’s also a prize for the highest number of fish caught, the most fish caught I think per angler and per boat. So there’s cash and prizes. So this part of the river is closed to sport fishing right now. So they get to fish a closed river that’s full of biting fish, aggressive fish I should say.
Yeah, there’s a lot of people that watch us and pay attention to the stocks. A lot of fish produced here go up the coast and are captured in Alaska’s commercial fishing. So, this, this, this stock, the population is ah, regionally significant.
So the entrance channel for our hatchery is just another not quite a mile upstream. And so the hatchery origin fish they’re trying to get back to where they were born or a hatchery into a fish trap.
Narrator: Returning fish are guided by a scent that was imprinted on them in the first stages of life. After several years of living and growing in the Pacific, they will follow their imprinted scent back to the spawning grounds of their birth. Biologists refer to this process as homing and it’s responsible for the massive numbers of Chinook fighting their way into the trap at Priest Rapids Hatchery.
Todd Pearsons: Hi, I’m Todd Pearsons. I’m a Senior Fisheries Scientist here with Grant County Public Utility District and over my shoulder here is Priest Rapids Hatchery. This is one of our largest hatchery programs. We produce about 5.6 million fish for our mitigation program. And we produce another 5 million plus for other peoples’ mitigation programs in the Columbia River Basin. About a mile downstream from where we are right now is where the fish come in from the Columbia River on the Hanford Reach. They come up the discharge channel about a mile. They swim up here. They ascend a small ladder over here and then they come and they have to jump over this little, this little weir right here. And then the end up right down in the pool, and you can see there’s a whole bunch, hundreds of ah, fall Chinook salmon in here. These are called Up River Brights. These are the King Salmon; they’re the big ones. And so they, they go into this holding area and then they swim from there over into the opening of the pescalator.
Narrator: Chinook that successfully make it to the hatchery trap have one final ascent but it’s one they can’t make on their own. Luckily, a clever contraption known as the pescalator awaits. It’s been described as an escalator for fish.
Todd: So you can see that the dark outlines in the, in the pescalator here are basically the outlines of the screw. And so the screw goes all the way up and it maintains a pool of water all the way up this pescalator allowing the fish to stay in the water the whole way up. So it allows us to get fish up and still keep them in the water so that we don’t stress the fish out too badly. They then get loaded up onto the truck. The truck goes about mile up from here and they get put into adult holding ponds or into a sorting channel where then we can decide which fish we’re going to take or for broodstock.
So we have four adult holding ponds here where we can hold the fish that we collect earlier in the year. This particular holding pond right here is, is special because this is where we keep the fish that are primarily natural origin fish. These are fish that were born in the Hanford Reach and these are the ones we want to prioritize for our hatchery program.
So we collect these fish both via angling and the broodstock collection and we also have a trap at Priest Rapids Dam not too far from here where we collect fish as well. Those have a much higher proportion of natural origin fish in them than our volunteer trap that we looked at earlier.
So the fish are put into, into the sorting channel and then the fish swim up and over this little weir in order to be able to get into this anesthetic bath. And we use electricity to anesthetize the fish. That, that box is then lifted up and the fish are put onto a sorting table. Fish can then be sorted for broodstock or whether they are a surplus to our needs for broodstock.
One of the things that they’re looking for when they come out on the spawning table is whether they’re male or female. They’re prioritizing females here right now and in particular trying to get the females that were born in the Hanford Reach. Those are the kinds of genetics that we want to be able to pass onto the progeny in this program.
Okay, so the length of the, the fish is being determined right now. And after the length is determined, then they’re going to, they’re going to look for the ear bone in the head of the fish. The ear bone is important because that helps us to determine whether this fish came from this hatchery or whether it was born out in the wild in the Hanford Reach. So they look for the ear bone. They’ll collect that ear bone and then later on in the year, those ear bones will be read and they will be able to tell based on the code that was laid down on those ear bones whether it came from this hatchery or from the natural environment.
The ear bones are one of the first hard structure that’s formed in the fish and we mark those ear bones by changing the water temperature. Cold water temperature gives you a tighter band. Warmer water temperature, wider band. So we can do a bunch of wide and, and narrow bands and because of the configurations of those, it’s like a barcode that you use at a grocery store. And it will help us to be able to determine whether the fish came from this hatchery or from some other location.
So again, if you looked under a microscope, you would see in these otoliths that you have different bands on them. They lay down a band every single day and so you’ll be able to see that there are different band patterns on the otolith. And that’s how we can tell whether they’re from this hatchery, another hatchery or from the natural environment.
Okay, so we’re in the fertilization room right now and this is where life begins. We’ve got raw eggs right here and then we have milt over there. And once we’ve identified which milt goes with which set of eggs, we will mix them and then from here, we will go into the actual incubation room.
Okay, so the fertilized eggs are then weighed and then a certain number of them are put into each one of the trays. These trays are meant to simulate the eggs in the natural environment, right? And we’re able to get really, really good survival in these trays. So this running water you see going through the trays provides oxygen for the developing embryos, the developing eggs and it also provides for a way for the waste products that are developed as they are developing to be removed from the eggs. So we run about 13 million eggs through here a year. So it’s a big program. It’s more than what we need for our own program. We produce eggs for other programs as well. Lot of life being produced here.
So about four months ago, we spawned the adults, put their eggs into the incubation trays and now these guys have hatched and they’ve been placed into outdoor raceways where they grow. We can get them up to size where they then are tagged. So let’s go over and look at the raceways where we’ve got millions of juvenile fall Chinook salmon.
Each one of these raceways, and we have 30 in total, have over a 100 thousand baby fall Chinook salmon in them. We’ll release a total of about 7.3 million from this facility. So once we get the fish to a large enough size, then we will tag or mark a number of these fish and we’ll transfer them to larger vessels. So these are the hatchery raceways here. And again, when they get large enough, we’ll transfer them to one of these five different holding ponds. And each of these holding ponds will get them to their final release size and will also imprint them on the water that we want them to come back to. That water is water that goes from this hatchery. We want these fish to come back to this location.
So each one of these ponds is fairly large in size. These will be watered up starting next week and we’ll be transferring the fish from the raceways to these ponds. So in about a week, we’re going to water up these ponds and the fish from the raceways are going to go into these ponds. This is where they’re going to do their final growing and they’re going to be imprinting on the water here at Priest Rapids Hatchery. The reason why we imprint these fish on this water is because we want these salmon when they return as adults; we want them to come back to this facility. So again, about the third week of June we’re going to lift this screen and we’re going to set all these fish, we’re going to set them free so they can migrate down to the Columbia and then ultimately out to the ocean and contribute to fisheries out in the ocean and then back in the Columbia River as well.