How salmon got to swim in Sakakawea

Riverdale, ND - Thousands of fish have been brought to central North Dakota ..  only to die.

The Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery is where biologists help many species of fish thrive in North Dakota waters.

One of the more unique projects focuses on chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon are not native to North Dakota, they're actually a west coast fish.

But, the cool water temps actually make for a pretty favorable habitat.

The life history of salmon is a little bit different from similar fish.

"They're going to live to reproduce and then die. Once they spawn, that's it," project leader at the fish hatchery, Rob Holm said.

The chinook salmon fishery is a recreational project that was brought to North Dakota in the early 1970s.

"The whole idea was that we had the Missouri River that was dammed and it went from a habitat that would be real conducive to native fish species spawning and surviving, to a lake that was 185 miles long and 120 feet deep. And it's cold most of the year," Holm said.

"So this is not conducive to native fish. But for Salmon, it's perfect."

The hatchery releases thousands of fingerlings each Spring.

They imprint in the fresh water reservoir at the Garrison Dam and spend their adult life in salt water for anywhere from three to five years.

Most of these salmon swim to Lake Oahe in South Dakota.

Instinct brings them back to where they were hatched to spawn, and that's when researchers collect them for reproduction.

About 2,000 eggs from each female are forced out with oxygen and fertilized with milk from the males.

The developing salmon stay at the National Fish Hatchery until the spring, when they're set free in the lake, and the circle of life starts again.

This project has definitely done its part to keep North Dakota waters occupied, as nearly one-and-a-half million eggs are collected each year.

Anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of the eggs will hatch, but even a small amount of salmon mean some pretty good fishing for people wetting a line on Lake Sakakawea.

"Without the salmon fishery, there wouldn't be a lot of fish in the middle of that reservoir. It's just too deep and too cold," Holm said.

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