I have two friends who are salmon innovators. On Al Adams’ quarter-acre lot I watched two species of salmon and a foot-long steelhead living in 50 linear feet of water. I think Al and Jerry Manuel represent a future for native fisheries in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone area.
Al and Jerry developed a backyard wild salmon incubator capable of hatching 100,000 eggs in a 55-gallon plastic barrel using fake plastic gravel and PVC pipes. It uses a flow of only 3 to 4 gallons per minute to do so. The whole package can be installed in a remote location and costs only a few hundred dollars.
Al began his love affair with salmon in the 1970s and came up with the idea of his own salmon run at his Mercer Island home near Seattle. After classes at the University of Washington he was quickly permitted for a residential salmon hatchery by the state. Salmon were in trouble and entrepreneurial bureaucrats were willing to try new ideas. That Mercer Island Coho run averaged 50 salmon a year for the next decade and became an educational staple for local schools. Al retired to Hood Canal and in 1990, with Jerry Manuel, helped start the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. The volunteer-based group has planted almost 4 million salmon.
Most of the fish are produced on private lands in rehabilitated streams using the wild salmon incubator system. The group works with schools, state fishery people, and landowners to redesign culverts and other stream barriers to make area streams favorable spawning grounds. In the Hood Canal area alone there are over 30 private spawning operations and almost 60 private habitat improvement projects.
The reason the small incubator system works is because it doesn’t place all the (salmon) eggs in one basket; many small and diverse locations ensure a higher survival rate of young fish. Hatcheries are an all-or-nothing bet that something won’t go wrong. When it does, the state can lose a generation of fingerlings and years of public investment. The salmon incubators are successful as a low-cost, low-tech way to increase the survival rate of eggs from 5 percent in the river to over 90 percent in the incubator. The fish population also remains more robust. Hatchery practices slowly alter the salmon population to smaller, less vigorous, and less healthy species.
Al and Jerry’s model could be readily applied to our part of the country. In Greater Yellowstone five native subspecies of cutthroat trout, the bull trout, and the fluvial Arctic grayling are at risk. The fish are confined to a small portion of their former range and some have suffered genetic losses from hybridization. An enlightened approach to reclaiming native fish would enlist landowners who own seemingly insignificant reaches of stream to set up an incubator system to raise fingerlings of cutthroat, grayling, and bull trout.
The system can work with many freshwater species. All you need is a source of water and habitat for them to swim to. Imagine the personal investment people would feel toward the fish, the waterway, their land, and an important part of our local heritage. Imagine the added value to our regional rivers and streams as large numbers of private landowners do their part to reestablish native fish.
When workers dismantle the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula, habitat for the largest subspecies of Chinook salmon in the world will be restored. The salmon innovators will be there working with locals to re-establish the runs using DNA from fish native to the Elwha watershed. They will tap into the almost fanatical support for salmon in the Pacific Northwest and help place salmon incubators at appropriate sites.
I hope someday to see similar enthusiasm and cooperation between private landowners, nonprofits, and state and federal fishery agencies in the Greater Yellowstone area. Our native fisheries should be as important to the interior Rocky Mountains as salmon are in the Pacific Northwest. Intact native fisheries generate millions of tourist dollars and help us preserve a legacy that began when Lewis and Clark first described the westslope cutthroat trout. Scientists named it in their honor Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi. Let’s begin to restore our native fish population one incubator at a time.