OLYMPIA -- The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Tuesday will resume clipping adipose fins on coho salmon produced in its north coastal and Puget Sound hatcheries in a multi-million dollar program required by state law.
The clipping program will enable fishers to distinguish hatchery fish from wild salmon when they reach harvestable size in 1998. The program is key to the department's effort to rebuild wild salmon runs in Washington and meet the increasing challenges of the federal Endangered Species Act.
One Puget Sound treaty tribe may ask the federal courts to block the plan to clip Puget Sound and north coastal hatchery coho.
"I'm very disappointed some tribes have threatened a divisive court hearing over the fin-clipping issue because we have worked in good faith with the tribes and Canada to resolve a number of issues they have raised," said Bern Shanks, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It could mean serious consequences for people who love to fish -- including tribal members." He also noted many Washingtonians depend upon salmon for food.
"The time has come when we have to resume clipping these fish. The Legislature and people of this state want it done and it is the right, science-based thing to do for wild fish. This is a critical conservation program," he added.
Shanks explained hatchery and wild coho mix in the ocean and in Puget Sound. In recent years, the department has had to restrict non-tribal fishing in those areas to prevent excessive numbers of wild fish from being caught.
"With the clipping program, fishers will be able to tell immediately if their catches came from a hatchery. Fin-clipping may improve our ability to protect wild fish while providing more predictable fishing opportunities for non-Indians," Shanks said.
With the tribes' concurrence, the department has marked almost three million coho in its Puget Sound hatcheries by removing the adipose fins -- small fins near the tails. Work to clip more than 8.4 million more will begin on Tuesday. Coho from Puget Sound hatcheries normally are caught in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, along the northern portion of the state's Pacific coast and in northern Puget Sound.
The state has almost completed the clipping of another 18.5 million coho raised in hatcheries on the coast and along the Columbia River. Those coho mostly are caught off Ilwaco, Westport and the lower Columbia River. Oregon has finished clipping its hatchery coho.
"Washington taxpayers invested $8 million to produce these coho and the Legislature appropriated the funds to mark them," Shanks said. "They have mandated us to protect wild fish and provide more fishing opportunities."
Some Puget Sound tribes have based their objections to mass marking on claims the program will undermine the coast-wide coded wire tag program.
The program provides management information by inserting tiny wire tags in the noses of some hatchery fish produced at American and Canadian hatcheries. The fish bearing the tags are marked by removing their adipose fins so they can be identified by anglers and commercial processors. Heads of tagged fish are turned to management agencies with catch data where the tags are extracted.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has offered to provide the tribes as well as the Canadian government with metal detectors and sampling support that will enable creel checkers and processing facilities to determine which fish bear the tags. Shanks and other department officials are scheduled to discuss the marking and coded wire tag issues with Canadian fish managers in two weeks.
"We can maintain the coded wire tag program and get on with our marking program," Shanks said.
"The important thing to remember is that marking will allow more wild fish to return to their native rivers while we continue to provide important salmon fishing opportunities," the director emphasized. "This program is a key element in rebuilding wild salmon runs."