Issaquah Salmon Hatchery

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Issaquah, a suburb east of Seattle, isn’t really a tourist destination. It’s mostly a land of highways, strip malls, big-box stores and little boxes on the hillside. In the midst of it all, there’s a modest downtown area that’s a reminder of Issaquah’s past as a small town in the foothills of the Cascades. Downtown Issaquah’s major attraction, and the source of the town’s annual festival, is the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery.

Since 1937 this facility has provided salmon a safe, controlled place to spawn. It works like this: adult salmon return from the ocean to swim up the same stream where they were born. When they reach the hatchery, they swim up the fish ladder, lay, and then fertilize their eggs. The adults then die; breeding is a one-time deal for salmon. The hatchery holds the eggs and newly born baby salmon, called fry. It feeds and protects the fry until they’re a few months old, and then releases the them back into the river. The fry swim downstream and spend a few years growing and fattening up in the Pacific Ocean.

When it’s time, the fry – now adult salmon – swim back up their nursery stream to repeat the process. There’s nothing for them to eat in the freshwater streams, so the journey is made entirely on the fat reserves they’ve built up in the ocean. It’s a trip that’s designed to kill them; a suicide march of sorts.

Less than 10% of the 1.2 million eggs the fishery collects this year will return as adult salmon; the rest die somewhere along the way. It sounds a little harsh; imagine if less than 10% of humans had the opportunity to reproduce. I guess it’s nature’s way of ensuring that only the strongest, most successful salmon (or sometimes just the luckiest ones) survive to pass on their genes.

Even with the long odds, that’s still a lot of adult fish swimming into the hatchery. In October, you can watch them jump their way up the ladder, pool by pool. They’re able to generate an impressive amount of energy and fly pretty far out of the water, and it’s fun to watch.

Issaquah Creek supports two of the six different species of Pacific salmon: Coho, which are really good to eat, and King (also called Chinook), which are great to eat. You can’t catch fish here though; the whole point is to spawn a new generation. But some portion of those 90% of non-returning salmon are caught by fishermen and end up on the plates of people like me. Really, that’s the main reason to go to the hatchery: to gain a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the Northwest’s most popular and iconic food. And my personal favorite, too.

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