With authorization of Makah NFH in 1973, the hatchery property was acquired by lease from the Makah Indian Nation. Actual construction on the hatchery began in 1976 and initial fish production in 1982. Makah NFH is located approximately 8 miles southwest of the town of Neah Bay, Washington, on the Northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula.
The role of the hatchery is to meet trust responsibilities to Native Americans by helping to restore depleted runs of salmon and steelhead to the Sooes and Wa’atch Rivers. Fall chinook, coho and winter steelhead are currently successfully supporting commercial and sport fisheries in the Pacific Ocean and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Freshwater sport and tribal fisheries in the Sooes River also benefit from the fish reared at Makah National Fish Hatchery. Returning adults are also passed upstream of the hatchery to spawn naturally and assist in the continued restoration and rehabilitation of the Sooes River and watershed and to preserve the genetic fitness of the native stocks.
The hatchery currently produces fall chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), coho (O. kisutch) salmon and winter steelhead (O. mykiss) trout for release into the Sooes River. Some of the chinook, coho, and steelhead are also transferred to the Tribal Educket Creek facility for subsequent release into the nearby Wa’atch River. In a cooperative agreement with the Makah Tribal hatchery, threatened Lake Ozette sockeye (O. nerka) eggs are incubated for a short period at the hatchery in a specially designed isolation and quarantine building. The Ozette Sockeye are also otolith thermal marked while in the isolation incubation building to facilitate identification of hatchery produced sockeye among the returning adult population, which allows the tribe to monitor both the impact of the various hatchery programs and the overall contribution of hatchery progeny to the recovery of this ESA listed stock.
Fish return to Makah NFH up the Sooes River. Upstream migrating adults are diverted into the hatchery and held in several large holding ponds. Adult fish are checked to determine overall numbers and “ripeness” of eggs. When enough of the fish are ripe, they are crowded into the sorting and spawning area. Ripe fish are quickly killed to facilitate handling while "green" fish are sent back to the holding pond through a waterslide system. Eggs from females are mixed with milt from males to fertilize them. Adult chinook and coho are also counted and released upstream of the weir to spawn naturally in the Sooes watershed as part of the watershed recovery program.
In the hatchery building, eggs are washed, disinfected, and placed in incubation trays. Cold, well-aerated water flowing through the trays and mimics a stream environment. After several weeks, eggs hatch into sac fry about an inch long, with sacs of egg yolk attached to their bellies. They stay in incubation trays for 10 weeks, depending on the natural water temperature from the river which supplies the hatchery water. During this time the alevins continue to absorb the yolk, using it for energy and material to continue their development. Once most of the yolk is absorbed and the belly walls meet (a process called “buttoning up”), the alevins are ready to be transferred to rearing troughs or raceways.
Hungry now, the young salmon, now called fry, instinctively swim upwards in search of food. They are transferred to outdoor raceways and fed a nutritious and balanced diet containing fish and grain meal, plus vitamins and minerals.
When coho salmon and steelhead fry are 18 months old and about 6 inches long, they smolt: tails lengthen and become more deeply forked, juvenile spots disappear and are replaced by a silvery coloring which is more appropriate to camouflage in the marine environment, and the urge to migrate begins. At this time metabolic changes also take place which allow the smolts to handle the salt in a marine environment. In late April and May, when coho and steelhead range from 5 to 7 inches and fall Chinook salmon average 3.5 inches, they are released into the Sooes River where they then migrate out to sea.