It’s been a vision in the works for years that will soon become a reality for the Yakama Nation.

A near-capacity crowd was on hand Friday to celebrate the ribbon cutting of the Melvin R. Sampson Coho Hatchery on Klocke Road west of Ellensburg. Expected to be operational by June 2020, the facility will be capable of raising 700,000 Coho smolts, receiving breeding stock from Roza Dam.

The hatchery is located on a 70-acre property purchased by the tribe in 2005, with ground being broken on the project in spring 2018. The majority of the property will be maintained as a natural riparian area, with the hatchery facility taking up approximately one acre. The hatchery is named after former tribal chairman and program director for Yakama Nation Fisheries Melvin Sampson. Sampson spent his childhood fishing at Celilo Falls, a famous tribal fishing ground destroyed in 1957 by the construction of The Dalles Dam.

RETURNING THE RUNS

Yakama Nation Fisheries Research Scientist Mark Johnston explained to the attendees that the Yakima River Basin was once the second-largest producer of salmon, only eclipsed by the Snake River Basin. Between 75,000 and 100,000 once found their way back to the basin. Coho became extinct in the basin in 1985, with the last coho being recorded coming over Prosser Dam that year.

The Yakama Nation began a reintroduction process in 1997. At that time, Johnston said the tribe trucked the fish in and placed them in the river, hoping they would come back. In 1999, the tribe began the acclimation process for the fish, placing them in raceways and side channels within the basin, giving them a better chance at returning. The process was modified in 2004 by creating an early versus late run. Johnston said the basin typically had a late run of returning coho, due to the typical rainstorms that occur in late fall.

“The tributaries fill up and those fish can get back in those tributaries,” he said.

In 2007, the tribe began tributary releases of par versus smolt. Johnston explained that par are fish that are approximately six months away from being ready to travel to the ocean, whereas they are ready when they become smolts.

“The par would be taken out in summertime,” he said. “Made to survive in the wild through the summer, fall and winter and then leave the following spring.”

Johnston said the opening of the new hatchery is perfectly timed with the collective effort to restore the basin as a whole. He explained that check structures are being removed that prohibited coho from returning to various tributaries in the basin. The structures were historically built to facilitate irrigation for agriculture, but as irrigation technology has evolved over time the structures are no longer needed.

“Those tributaries are being opened back up so those fish can actually go into those tributaries they were once inhabiting,” he said.

HONORING THE NAMESAKE

Countless stories were told during the ceremony about Sampson, who the hatchery was named after. Yakama Nation Fisheries Research Manager Dave Fast said he began working for the tribe in 1985 as a spring chinook project biologist.

“I was impressed with the vision many tribal leaders had for the salmon restoration in the Yakima Basin,” he said.

Fast said he began to work with Sampson in 1992 when Sampson came on as a spring chinook project leader.

“Mel already had a great history of accomplishments in various fields that he worked on for his people,” he said. “In my academic career I had many great professors over all those years at all those universities, however Mel quickly became my greatest and favorite teacher and mentor.”

Fast worked with Sampson to eventually open the tribe’s Cle Elum hatchery in 1997 and worked to evolve the project’s original function of a typical mass production hatchery to the focus on supplementation and research it now performs.

“Watching Mel in action taught me how to persevere and to get things done,” he said. “Every obstacle that was put in our way was assessed and addressed by Mel and overcome as we slowly worked forward to accomplish the goal of building the Yakama spring chinook hatchery.”

CULTURAL IMPORTANCE

Yakama Nation member Davis Washines, also known as Yellowash explained to the attendees that salmon is an integral part of the tribe’s existence, as important to tribal members as the air they breathe. As important as the salmon are to the people, he said it was equally important to see the equation from the other side.

“What does Yakama Nation people mean to the salmon,” he posed. “The way we’re taught in the beginning is to understand that we have a responsibility. We’re witness today to that responsibility of how to take care of our brother. How to make sure our future generations have the same opportunities. We want to maintain that for the future.”

To illustrate the point literally in hand, Washines held up a Cool Whip container and explained that the night before, his partner had cooked a salmon dinner for the family. When she finished cooking, she handed him the container and told him he knew what to do with it.

“You fisherman, you know the responsibility we have,” he said. “Once the fish are cleaned and prepared, whatever is left over we have a responsibility to make an effort to return it to where it came from, back to the water.”

Washines explained that the fish are challenged from the time they are a fry, struggling to reach the ocean and eventually return to the tributaries within the basin.

“Many challenges, many obstacles,” he said. “Predators, dams, pollution. But yet it maintains that promise that it made to us, and that’s what we’re taught. You take care of this, and it will take care of you. When we return these things back to the river, that’s a testimony to that sacrifice.”

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