This Bellingham waterfront proposal could help save the orca population

In an attempt to bring salmon numbers back to 1985 levels, ultimately helping the local orca population, plans are in the works to bring a large fish hatchery to Bellingham’s waterfront.

A nonprofit organization called the San Juan AREA Sea Life is working to gather local support before looking for funding. If it gets the support it needs, the waters around Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands could start seeing more salmon in the next five or six years, said Doug Thomas, chairman of the organization.

For Thomas, who is also president of Bellingham Cold Storage, it’s about creating a community legacy centered around restoring the salmon and the whales in this area.

“We can do nothing or we can do something. I want to do something,” Thomas said.

Thomas believes a hatchery can make a difference after researching what he said has worked well in Alaska. The business model he believes will work is a private nonprofit format that would eventually pay for itself in a relatively short time. Thomas was part of a group of people who visited a hatchery in Alaska to see how it was successful.

If this idea becomes a reality, it would eventually mean millions of salmon that would not compete with the native stock, Thomas said.

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Washington state officials tour the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in Juneau, Alaska, the summer. The hatchery model used by Alaska has caught interest in Bellingham, where the nonprofit San Juan AREA Sea Life is considering putting in a large hatchery on the waterfront. Doug Thomas Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Here’s how Thomas envisions the process:

The organization continues to get key partners, including the native tribes, on board with the idea.

In January, State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, plans to introduce a bill to fund a feasibility study. If the plan shows promise, the next step would be to get funding for the project through low-interest loans.

After feasibility studies are done and the necessary permitting process is completed, the hatchery would be built somewhere near Whatcom Creek on the Bellingham waterfront.

As the hatchery gets going, a program would be in place where local fishermen would catch some of the fish and sell it to processors. Some of the money from those sales would go toward paying the loans.

In around 10-12 years the amount of returning salmon will exceed the revenue requirements needed to pay the overhead costs, Thomas said. The hatchery can be opened to more public fishing while continuing to grow the overall numbers in the nearby waters.

The hatchery would follow the Boldt Decision, which calls for a 50/50 harvest split between tribal and non-tribal groups.

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The Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in Juneau, Alaska, could serve as a model for a private nonprofit hatchery that’s proposed in Bellingham. Doug Thomas Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The goal of populating fish levels back to 1985 levels is a tall order. During that time an estimated 40 million salmon were in the area, which includes the waters around the San Juan Islands, Thomas said. Currently, the Bellingham Technical College hatchery releases around four million salmon annually, Thomas said.

One key agency that is interested in this project is the Port of Bellingham. It will also be requesting the state fund a feasibility study, said Mike Hogan, port spokesman.

“This hatchery could have a major benefit to Washington state, regional fisheries and southern resident orcas by increasing the numbers of salmon and decreasing the associated state cost,” Hogan said. He also noted the opportunity of including in a visitor center to increase public involvement and talk about the ongoing environmental challenges in this region.

Where would the hatchery go?

Thomas believes the best spot for the hatchery would be in the Whatcom Waterway area. He said the property near Waypoint Park is one possibility, while the former log pond area near the Landings at Colony Wharf is another. The spot near Waypoint Park could include an artificial creek, or the hatchery could be built on one portion of the log pond.

That area is know historically for producing millions of wild salmon as well as a hatchery project operated by Bellingham Technical College, Thomas said.

“We know that salmon have, do and can thrive in this system,” he said.

Hogan said the port has not set aside an area for the hatchery, but that the former log pond might be a good fit. He said much of the land around Waypoint Park is spoken for under the Master Development Agreement with Harcourt.

One other advantage is the infrastructure that is in place, including the pipeline once used by Georgia Pacific to get fresh water from Lake Whatcom. The pipeline provides up to 60 million gallons a day, while this hatchery would need around five million gallons a day.

Thomas said the water is pulled from the deepest portions of Lake Whatcom, providing cooler water temperatures that salmon thrive on.

“We expect that this clean, cold source of water will improve survivability significantly when compared to other hatcheries in Washington that do not have this unique source of water opportunity,” Thomas said.

How does this impact the native stock?

The hatchery shouldn’t significantly impact the wild native stock if it is properly managed, Thomas said, pointing to the success Alaska has had with its ability to sustain wild salmon. The hatchery fish are tagged and targeted by commercial and recreational fishers, taking the pressure off the wild stocks.

According to Center for Whale Research, Chinook salmon is the food of choice for the southern resident killer whale, consisting of at least 80% of its diet. The average southern resident orca consumes 18-25 adult salmon a day.

A 2010 paper from the Inter-Research Science Publisher, cited in 2018 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated that researchers found whales did not distinguish between hatchery and wild salmon.

With this proposed hatchery, raising chinook can be relatively expensive, so the hatchery would also need to raise a significant number of less-expensive chum salmon in order to make the hatchery viable financially, he said.

Will the state be on board with this plan?

There is already bipartisan concern about the diminishing salmon returns, so this plan should draw interest from state legislators, said Luanne Van Werven, state representative for the 42nd district.

Van Werven traveled with Thomas and others to Alaska to see how those non-profit hatcheries operate and came away very impressed.

“If we implement a similar model it will provide permanent benefits for our tribal, commercial and recreational fisheries,” Van Werven said in an email.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.