Construction of the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery (WNFH) occurred between 1940 and 1942. Fish culture operations were initiated at Winthrop in 1942. Sockeye salmon, spring Chinook salmon, and steelhead trout were identified as the primary mitigation species. The initial operating plan for the hatchery called for adult spring Chinook and summer steelhead to be trapped at Rock Island Dam and transported to Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery for spawning. The gametes (fertilized eggs) were then transported to the Entiat and Winthrop hatcheries. By 1951, Winthrop National Fish Hatchery reared not only salmon, but also rainbow and brook trout used to stock state waters for fishing.
In 1969, fish disease, water quality, and technical problems were encountered in the production of salmon reared at the hatchery. The emphasis then turned to more trout production (more than one million fish) for the Colville Tribes and state planting programs. This continued well into the mid-1970s when the national fish hatchery objectives and priorities changed and the focus went back to restoring and rehabilitating Chinook salmon runs in the upper Columbia basin.
Today, WNFH raises 200,000 steelhead, 400,000 spring Chinook, and 250,000 coho salmon for release into the Methow River. Salmon and steelhead must travel 574 river miles between the hatchery and the Pacific Ocean.
Here is a timeline showing our earlier work, and how the spring Chinook program got started.:
1945-1957: Sockeye salmon was the primary species produced.
1959-1969: Coho salmon was the primary species produced.
1969-1976: Production switched to rainbow trout. Fish were primarily released into lakes. An average of 100,000 per year were released into the Methow River and its tributaries.
1976: The hatchery began releasing spring Chinook salmon (Carson stock from the lower Columbia River) into the Methow River.
1994: Spring Chinook production was reduced from one million to 600,000 smolt annually (still Carson stock).
1995: A summer steelhead program began at Winthrop NFH. Eyed eggs were received from Wells Dam Fish Hatchery to support the program.
1996: The hatchery began releasing coho salmon (Tanner and Eagle Creek stock) into the Methow River to initiate the Yakama Nation coho reintroduction program.
2000: Carson stock phase-out began.
2008: A stepping stone program for spring Chinook was established. Adult salmon originating from the Methow Fish Hatchery (run by Douglas Public Utility District) were included in the program. The summer steelhead program began transitioning toward use of local, wild adults for broodstock broodstock The reproductively mature adults in a population that breed (or spawn) and produce more individuals (offspring or progeny).
2010: Removal of hatchery-raised spring Chinook from the spawning population began, as part of the stepping stone program established in 2008. These fish became part of the tribal food program.
2012: The Yakama Nation kelt reconditioning program began at Winthrop NFH. The kelt program takes spawned steelhead females and reconditions them to have the opportunity to spawn again in the wild.
2014: 200,000 spring Chinook smolts annually were redirected to the Okanogan Basin, reducing Methow smolt releases to 400,000 annually. An estimated 10,200 Winthrop NFH coho adults return to Bonneville Dam. This was the highest adult return since the inception of the program.
2017: The coho program at Winthrop NFH spawned 575 adult pairs for a 1,000,000 smolt release goal in 2019 into the Methow River basin.
2019: Brood year 2017 juveniles were released in 2019 to initiate the Natural Production Implementation Phase of the program, intended to focus natural production in quality habitat within upper areas of the watershed. The program releases juveniles from 6 acclimation ponds within the target watersheds (upper Methow, Twisp, and Chewuch rivers) and Winthrop NFH.
2020: The steelhead program began live-spawning wild males and releasing them back in to the Methow River to contribute genetics on the spawning grounds, after being used in broodstock operations at the hatchery.
2021: Estimated Winthrop NFH coho adult return to Bonneville Dam was 11,400, surpassing the 2014 return.
The original ponds constructed at the hatchery were Foster-Lucas ponds, named for the two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who designed them.
Experiments conducted at Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery demonstrated that Foster-Lucas ponds had flaws. The rotating brush meant to sweep the bottom and keep it clean only raised debris into the water column, creating an unhealthy environment for fish. And the current throughout the pond was inconsistent, resulting in uneven fitness in the fish population. Many of these original ponds were later modified to become raceways, but some original Foster-Lucas ponds remain in use today.
Some were torn out and replaced by more modern raceways covered with sturdy, snow-shedding roofs. Snow in winter and sun in summer are annual challenges for the hatchery.
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