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State investigating catastrophic salmon deaths at Pierce County hatchery

Investigators are examining whether the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife followed protocol before a power outage killed more than 6 million salmon at a Gig Harbor hatchery.

The Minter Creek Hatchery is like a nursery for salmon. The fish are raised from eggs all the way to juveniles ready for release.

The Gig Harbor hatchery suffered a catastrophic loss of more than 6 million Chinook salmon last week when a windstorm knocked out power, and a backup generator failed.

"These drawers each hold a little over 5,000 in each drawer. A portion of the population has suffocated. The rest of them are in fine shape and managed to get through this with us pumping some water into that head trough," explained South Puget Sound Hatchery Operations Manager Jim Jenkins.

RELATED: 6.2 million young chinook salmon dead after Pierce County power outage

Jenkins says the loss is a little less than the 100 percent initially assumed dead. The total is closer to 90 percent, which is still enough to arouse anger among fishermen and orca advocates. 

The Chinook were being raised as part of efforts to increase food for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Fishermen are also upset that already bad salmon returns are now going to be worse, despite an increase in fees they're paying to the state. In messages to the Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Kelly Susewind, charter fishermen expressed their discontent and called for accountability.

"Someone needs to be accountable for this loss as it will affect all of us, including the orcas," writes Brian Oldfield. "This comes at a time when the department needs more funds but in order to show us why, we expect better than this."

An outside office is now investigating the protocol for power outages and whether it was followed.

"We are upset. We don't want to see something like this happen. It's not a perfect world. We don't live in a world where everything works every time perfectly. That's the mechanical world," said Jenkins. "The people element, people do make mistakes. I'm not saying either one of those hair things have happened. We are going to do a root cause analysis to determine what happened."

RELATED: Emergency efforts to save kokanee salmon continue

Jenkins says they'll get fish from at least one other hatchery, so they will release some salmon this spring, but it will be less than half of what was planned.

For now, a good portion of the recently hatched Chinook will live in large ponds outside, which runs counter to protocol.

"Normally these fish would not be ready to be in a pond. This is not the best practice, but because they were suffocating for the lack of electricity in the building, we brought them out here where the water is gravity fed and not dependent on electrical pumps," Jenkins explained. "If we had not brought the fish out of the incubation into these ponds, these fish would not have survived either."

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