Only about 10 percent of the Minter Creek Chinook fry, similar to these, survived the power outage. Courtesy Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

Disaster struck the Minter Creek Hatchery Dec. 14, 2018, at 5:30 p.m. 

It was Friday night and the wind howled as the power went out over the entire Key Peninsula. Power loss is particularly dangerous for salmon fry, which depend on the flow of oxygen-rich water to survive. Depending on the stage of development of the young fish, there may only be a 15-minute window to ensure survival. For that reason, the hatchery is a 24/7 operation. If the power fails, an automated system fires up a diesel generator to keep the oxygen flowing.

Within minutes the staff at the hatchery realized that the automatic system had malfunctioned and attempted to override and start it manually. When those attempts failed, staff notified South Puget Sound Hatchery Operations Manager Jim Jenkins. Jenkins called the maintenance crew for additional suggestions, notified the diesel mechanic to come to the site, and called in an emergency crew. 

“We have an excellent and dedicated group of people. They are waiting for that call and head out to where they are needed immediately,” Jenkins said. “One staff member was on the Narrows Bridge headed to a Christmas party. He turned around and arrived in minutes, going to work in his holiday clothes.” 

Within 15 minutes several backup staff arrived, and within an hour nine people, coming from the Olympia and Tacoma areas, were working with flashlights in the winter storm to save the fish. They formed three teams. Team one worked to plumb surface water into the incubation room from the gravity fed surface water intake. Team two checked oxygen levels, installed and maintained a small pump to move creek water into the incubation room, and also drained incubators with eggs in them. Team three worked to restore the generator, including an unsuccessful attempt to restart it using car batteries.

A call went out to the fire department to see if they might be able to help with a pumper truck, but they were busy tending to human emergency needs. The diesel mechanic arrived, and about three hours after the power failed the generator was running. Ten minutes later power was restored. 

The chum (about 4.2 million) and coho (about 2 million) stock survived. They were in the egg stage and far more resilient to oxygen loss. If eggs are moist but not submerged in water, they can absorb oxygen from the atmosphere and survive for several hours. If they are in water with dropping oxygen levels, they will die. More than a thousand trays with about 5,000 eggs per tray were drained one by one to save the eggs, Jenkins said.

The Chinook salmon—fall and spring—were at the most vulnerable fry stage. The crew worked to divert water from the gravity-fed sources to their incubators, but with limited success. Initially they thought all had been lost, but Jenkins said the efforts of the crew saved 10 percent and those hatched fry were moved to holding tanks, earlier than ideal, but safer for the fish than the incubators.

The spring Chinook program is designed to help increase the stock of an endangered species and more recently to also increase the food supply for the southern resident orcas. Minter is one of two sites for this program; the other, slightly larger, is at White River. The Minter Creek program had an estimated 500,000 fry on hand, an increase of about 100,000 fish compared to prior years. There is no replacement for those lost fish, but when the spring Chinook return to Minter this coming year, eggs will be collected and fertilized, and the program will continue. 

Chinook, unlike coho and chum, cross age brackets when they return to spawn. Just over half return after four years, but others may come back between one and five years. This gives them more resilience in the face of an environmental disaster, according to Jenkins. 

About half of the lost fall Chinook (5.7 million) will be replaced with hatched fish, delivered to the holding ponds starting as early as mid-January from hatcheries with excess supply. The fall Chinook program supports state fisheries and does not represent new production. 

Jenkins said that the hatchery program is designed to have redundancy. No program is standalone. “We don’t want to put all of our eggs into one hatchery.” 

All Minter systems operated as expected when a second power outage occurred the following week. An outside office is now investigating the incident and protocol for power outages. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said, “I’ve instructed staff to hire a contractor to determine what went wrong and help us identify steps we can take to prevent such a loss in the future.”

Update: The Nisqually Indian Tribe donated 500,000 Chinook fry from its Clear Creek Hatchery to Minter Creek Hatchery in January. The Suquamish Tribe donated another 250,000 and WDFW facilities donated a combined two million.

Jim Jenkins said this was about half of what Minter Creek usually works with, or approximately 2.5 million fish. The WDFW manages Minter Creek but works with the Nisqually Indian Tribe on salmon restoration.

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