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Changes on Tap for Local Hatcheries

by Allen Thomas
The Columbian, August 7, 2008

Odds and ends from the Columbia River fisheries realm....

Big changes are coming to the operation of salmon and steelhead hatcheries on lower Columbia River tributaries.

It's called the "Conservation and Sustainable Fisheries Plan," and the basic goal is to help wild salmon and steelhead populations rebuild by reducing the competition they face from hatchery-origin fish.

"The biggest problem is that too many hatchery fish are overwhelming the wild fish on the spawning grounds," said Pat Frazier, regional fish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

So the plan, a couple of years in the making, looks at how to best operate the hatcheries and maintain fish for harvest, without impeding wild fish recovery.

In some watersheds, production of hatchery salmon and steelhead will be reduced or eliminated, Frazier said. Much of the time, that lost production is shifted to another location.

Four watersheds - the Grays, Elochoman, Washougal and North Fork of the Toutle - have been identified as critical populations of wild-spawning fall chinook and coho.

"These watersheds have to recover to recover the population overall," Frazier said.

The Kalama, North Lewis and Cowlitz watersheds have what are labeled "stabilizing" populations, thus will not contribute as much to wild-fish recovery, he said.

For example, under the plan all salmon releases in the Elochoman River of Wahkiakum County will cease. Beaver Creek Hatchery, on an Elochoman tributary, will reopen to maintain winter steelhead production and to raise a million fall chinook for transfer to net pens in Deep River.

Closer to home, winter steelhead releases in the East Fork of the Lewis River will be reduced, Frazier said.

Weirs will be added to some streams, allowing fishery officials to remove hatchery fish so that just wild salmon and steelhead get to spawn.

Frazier said the actual reduction in hatchery production is relatively small.

Fall chinook numbers will drop from 30.7 million young annually released to 29.6 million. Much more of the production will be shift to the "select areas," which is the buzzword for net pens in off-channel places in the Columbia like Youngs Bay, Blind Slough and Deep River in the estuary.

Production of early-returning (late August to mid-October) coho drops from 12.8 million to 11.7 million. Production of late coho (mid-September to November) drops from 7.5 million to 7 million.

Frazier briefed the bi-state Columbia River Recreational Advisory Group on the changes last week.

"It's a new vision for how we operate the Columbia River," he said.

A public meeting is scheduled at 6 p.m. Aug. 21 at Washougal Community Center, 1701 C St., to share more of the specifics.

Spring chinook outlook

The count of jack spring chinook at Bonneville Dam this year was 22,352, which was second best to the 24,200 in 2000, said Robin Ehlke of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That jack count in 2000 gave us the huge return of more than 400,000 adult spring chinook in 2001.

So, this year's jack count bodes well for next spring.

However, the enthusiasm for the high jack count is a little more restrained this year. That's because there was an excellent jack count a year ago, and a forecast for a good return of 269,000 upper Columbia spring chinook in 2008.

The actual return was 178,800, or only two-thirds of the forecast.

A decade ago, a run of 178,800 would have been considered stupendous, but then we were spoiled by the big runs of 2001 and 2002.

Still, the 178,800 chinook fueled fishing upstream of Hayden Island through April 20, before reaching catch ceilings. In total, there were 17,300 spring chinook caught and 2,700 released upstream of the Hayden Island power lines and 2,800 chinook kept and 500 released during a 12-day season downstream of Hayden Island.

Jack counts in Oregon's Willamette River are weak again this year, the third worst on record, said Chris Kern of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"They are better than the previous two years, but still very low," Kern said. "We're not sure why the Willamette is down. We had a basinwide meeting and crossed all the suspects off the list."

A repeat of 2008, with most of the angling effort upstream of the mouth of the Willamette River, looks very likely.

Columbia River pinks

Fifty pink salmon had been counted through July 29 at Bonneville Dam and some of those where caught in the treaty Indian commercial fishery upstream of the dam.

That's a very unusual occurrence.

A few pinks are found in the Columbia during odd-numbered years, with perhaps a few hundred noted in the lower Cowlitz River. But for pinks to be seen in an even year is a surprise to state fishery officials.

While on the subject of unusual salmon, five chum have been counted at Bonneville Dam, too.

Chum normally return in small numbers to several spots in the lower Columbia basin, but not until November and December.

Sea lion notes

Sea lions are taking salmon off anglers' rods in the ocean this year, said Steve Watrous of the Columbia Pacific Anglers group. Trouble with marine mammals used to be limited to inside the Columbia, but now they will range from five to eight miles off shore, he said.

Sea lions don't eat jack spring chinook as often as they do adults. That may be changing the relationship between jacks counted at Bonneville Dam and adult returns the following year. State officials also say they are acutely aware of the potential damage Steller sea lions might be doing to the sturgeon broodstock near Bonneville.

Sockeye update

Fourteen sockeye salmon had completed the 950-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to central Idaho's high county through last week. That is double the return of the previous two years combined, and the start of what is hoped to be a bumper crop. More than 800 sockeye have been counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, 400 miles away from the Sawtooth Hatchery-Redfish Lake Creek spawning grounds. A year ago, only four sockeye salmon make it back to Sawtooth Hatchery.

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation topics for The Columbian.
Changes on Tap for Local Hatcheries
The Columbian, August 7, 2008

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