Groups Seek Partnership for Clarks Creek Hatchery

With news that a proposed lease of Clarks Creek Hatchery to a for-profit seafood company has been suspended, community groups, lawmakers and Puyallup Tribe officials gathered this week to find alternatives to keep the hatchery producing fish as well as educating the public about the environment.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife suspended talks last week with Portland-based Pacific Seafood after a host of voices raised concerns about the proposal. Area lawmakers had questioned why they were not told of the proposed 50-year, or even 70-year, lease or what any deal would mean to the hatchery’s role in environmental education. Resident groups worried that the shift in operation would cut off their access to the hatchery grounds and mean more pollution in the water and traffic on nearby streets. Tribal members worried the change would hurt salmon production on the Puyallup River and wondered why the deal did not follow an open-bid process. No draft lease or summary of proposed lease terms has ever been made public.

The proposed lease between Pacific Seafood and the state had developed as Fish and Wildlife officials were exploring ways to continue producing trout bound for area lakes with increasingly tight budgets brought by the lagging economy and a legislative directive to find ways to do more with less. In recent years, the state had used the hatchery to produce some 270,000 trout that were then released into sport fishing lakes around Puget Sound. The lease would have had Pacific Seafood “rent” the hatchery in exchange for trout, instead of cash, although specific amounts of trout were never publicly released. The company would also spend some $2 million to renovate the 66-year-old facility. The state already has lease deals at four other hatcheries, which were signed with little public outcry.

“They were extremely surprised by this,” said Puyallup Senator Jim Kastama, (R-25th District) said. “Fish and Wildlife was really taken back.”

The public outcry about Clarks Creek, however, has since prompted wildlife officials to suspend the talks, but the facts remain, he said, that leases to private companies could return to the discussion.

“I think it would be naive of us to think negotiations like this would not happen in the future,” Kastama said.

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which had sought to buy or lease the hatchery to produce Steelhead and Chinook instead of trout, is interested in working with the state or community groups to see if a better solution could be found. The state had turned down the tribe’s proposal, which also included the City of Puyallup and the Washington State University Extension program, because wildlife officials wanted the hatchery for trout, and not Steelhead, production. The state is, however, obligated under a 1989 agreement with the tribe to find ways to boost Steelhead production on the river.

“The tribe is looking at this very seriously,” Tribal Natural Resource Director Bill Sullivan said, noting that the tribe is always looking for ways to protect the watershed, increase fish production and educate the public about environmental issues. He added that the tribe has spent some $3 million in recent years just to study water quality on the Puyallup River waterway, where Clarks Creek water eventually flows. “There are just a lot of ways we can do this.”

A community group, Save our Puyallup Fish Hatchery, formed after news of the proposed lease became public last month and is now looking at forming a nonprofit to be part of the discussions about what happens now. One model is a hatchery in Issaquah, which operates with help from volunteers and hosts a massive salmon celebration every year as a community recreational and educational event. Outside of talks about which fish would be produced at the facility, the group wants the operation to remain accessible for educational tours for area school district classes and environmental groups, a future that was undefined in the lease deal with Pacific Seafood.

“I think we are in a great place right now,” said State Representative Bruce Dammeier (R-25th District).

The potential partners are gathering specific ideas on what a deal would include and who would all be involved with the idea of meeting again to further discussions.

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