It’s clipping and tagging time again at the Muckleshoot tribe’s hatchery here, where managers are trying to nurse the White River’s run of spring chinook salmon back to health.
The signs are encouraging that the work is paying off. Twenty years ago, when the run reached a low of 50 adults, state, federal and tribal fish managers stepped in and began raising the fish in hatcheries. The population now is estimated at more than 2,000 adults.
Part of the effort at the Muckleshoots’ hatchery is to mark the fingerlings so the comeback effort can be tracked.
Jennifer Black has a special knack for the work. She can handle three or four of the tiny fish at once - scooping them out of a metal trough where they are anesthetized by a chemical in the water, gently squeezing each fish’s head to force its mouth open, and placing the mouth over a plastic head mold on an electronic tagging machine.
The machine, with a little thump, inserts a tiny piece of coded wire into each fish’s head.
Handling the fingerlings in groups of three or four is an art, said Art Perry, her supervisor at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s new tagging trailer, one of three that travel to hatcheries operated by the panel’s 19 treaty-tribe members.
“She is the only one I know who can do that,” Perry said as Black smiled modestly.
The 12-member crew working at the Muckleshoots’ White River Hatchery will remove one tiny fin and code 350,000 fish over the next two weeks. It’s not a great experience for the fish, but the taggers are careful - losing maybe 30 out of the 35,000 handled each day.
“If I think people are mishandling the fish, I tell them that they are your fish and they will return to you to benefit the tribe,” Perry said. And the bit of wire enables fishery managers to determine whether their efforts are succeeding.
“Every salmon manager wants to know what’s happening to the fish leaving his hatchery,” manager Richard Johnson said.
The clipped fin tips fishermen that their catch is from a hatchery, and they are encouraged to turn in the heads - to tagging bins, marinas or sporting-goods stores. The catch location is noted and the coded wires are retrieved and interpreted by the state Fish and Wildlife Department. The information is shared with all the state’s fish managers - federal, Indian and non-Indian.
The run is never expected to reach its former numbers. Too much has changed. Two dams have been placed on the river. And there is logging, pollution, habitat loss and exploitation by fishing.
So the fish are raised here, at two state hatcheries near Purdy, and in net pens at Squaxin Island. And the tagging-coding effort offers a chance at helping save the run.
“Last year and the year before it was really so cool to see the first fish come back that we had sent out four years ago,” Black said.
Renee Lozier, who works at the tagging trailer with her three sisters, said she started the job “when my daughter wanted to go fishing and there weren’t any fish. I just wanted to do it for my grandchildren, so maybe they could have fish.”