About a dozen people stood in a pool at the Spokane Hatchery on Monday, sifting through a couple of thousand female rainbow trout.
They picked up each fish and gave a light squeeze. If the squeeze produced eggs, the fish was set aside in another pen to wait until the staff and volunteers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife were ready to collect the orange orbs in small white buckets.
By the end of the morning, the group had found about 250 fish that were ready to spawn. Jeff Lombard, a WDFW hatchery specialist, estimated that would result in about 700,000 eggs.
It was the fourth week of this operation, and the biggest egg haul this year. But it was also just one-tenth of what the hatchery wants to get from this spawning season, so there will still be a few more cold Monday mornings left to go before the hatchery has all the eggs it needs.
“We sort them once a week and that’s all we can do,” Lombard said.
This process happens every winter at the hatchery north of town, not far from the Little Spokane River. It’s one of the most important sites in WDFW’s network of fish farms. Thousands of trout raised there get placed in more than 70 lakes and ponds around the region, and millions of its eggs are shipped to other hatcheries around Washington. One WDFW official said the Spokane hatchery accounts for about a third of the state’s rainbow trout egg production.
The hatchery turns 90 next year. Next year will also mark the beginning of several years of major renovations for the property – estimated to cost between $40 million and $60 million – as WDFW works to meet water quality standards in the Little Spokane River and improve the hatchery along the way.
The hatchery has a permit to discharge its effluent into a slough off the Little Spokane River, a slow oxbow where nutrients and other materials can theoretically settle out before the water joins the river.
Among the nutrients in the effluent is phosphorus, which can reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in a stream and make it less habitable for fish and other aquatic life.
The Washington Department of Ecology found that the level of dissolved oxygen in the river was too low, and to fix it, officials set their sights on reducing the amount of phosphorus going into the river. In 2020, the agency set a limit for the amount of the chemical that can be discharged from any one source into the Little Spokane River each day.
Jordan Bauer, the finfish general permit facility manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, said the limit – called a total maximum daily load – is about 0.51 kilograms per day. The hatchery’s effluent carries about 1 kilogram of phosphorus per day, likely in the form of leftover fish feed and fish waste.
In 2022, the Department of Ecology issued an administrative order for WDFW to make changes to meet the standard. The order provides them a “playbook” for fixing the problem, Bauer said, with set schedules and requirements they have to meet over the next several years.
The order also addresses the hatchery’s discharge of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. PCBs are industrial chemicals that can cause significant human health concerns at high concentrations.
Bauer said the level of PCBs coming out of the hatchery is low, and doesn’t present an imminent health threat, but that it could become a problem if left to fester.
“It’s a really old facility, so they have these legacy PCBs in the facility in the paint and caulk and old piping and stuff like that,” Bauer said.
WDFW has been receptive to the order and is working closely with the Department of Ecology on their plans. They have divided the renovations into three phases to be carried out over the next six years, said Chris Donley, the agency’s eastern region fish program manager. He estimated the total cost would be between $40 million and $60 million.
The Washington Legislature gave WDFW about $16 million for the first round of renovations, and construction is expected to begin next year. The work will include building a new settling pond and filtration infrastructure for the hatchery’s outflows. Some rearing ponds are also going to be replaced.
WDFW will go back to the Legislature to ask for money for the following two phases, which will involve replacing more of the rearing ponds, other infrastructure improvements and building updates.
Beyond the renovations, WDFW is examining other ways to cut back on the amount of phosphorus coming out of the hatchery. Beginning next month, they’re going to begin testing a new low-phosphorus feed. Hatchery officials will be examining whether the feed will help fish grow effectively and help cut back on pollution.
Once all the female rainbows were sorted on Monday, hatchery workers brought special tables into the pond. Rubber mesh – like the bag on a fishing net – made up the middle of the table, and groups of the fish were put there, and a worker picked up each one and used a needle and compressed air to shoot the eggs into a bucket.
At the other end of the pool, Lombard and a few helpers worked with the male rainbow trout, collecting their milt – sperm – in little Ziploc bags, keeping track of the ratio of males to females.
They were done with all the fish by about 9:30 a.m., and the eggs and the milt were hauled into a low, flat building, where they were mixed and stored in long cement troughs.
There are more than a dozen of the troughs in that building, filling a long, dim room. Already, 2 million eggs had been harvested, and some of them remained in the troughs. Lombard ticked off the eggs’ destinations as he walked past them Monday – Curlew Lake, hatcheries at Chelan and Ford. On his computer, he has a spreadsheet that lists nearly a dozen hatcheries that expect fish eggs from Spokane.
The majority of the 7 million eggs hatchery workers gather each winter are sent off to be raised elsewhere. Other hatcheries depend on those shipments because they generally aren’t as capable of keeping adult fish to produce eggs of their own.
The Spokane Hatchery has the space and, being spring-fed, good water. It’s going to continue raising fish throughout the renovations, in part because the other hatcheries rely so much on it. Kevin Flowers, another WDFW hatchery specialist, said shutting down the hatchery would result in Washington losing 33% of its rainbow trout egg production.
About 1.1 million eggs gathered this winter will stay in Spokane, growing either to replace the hatchery’s broodstock or to eventually hitch a ride to somebody’s favorite lake. If an angler lands a fish in any lake within 70 miles or so of Spokane, there’s a good chance that fish has a connection to the hatchery.
“It’s a very important program to the Inland Northwest,” Flowers said.