OLYMPIA - Fishers, food banks and Mother Nature herself all are expected to benefit in coming weeks as larger than normal numbers of hatchery coho salmon return to southwest Washington hatcheries, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) reported today.
Tens of thousands of so-called "surplus" hatchery coho are expected to return to seven hatcheries on the Toutle, Lewis and Cowlitz and four other rivers by December, allowing the department to provide more recreational fishing, help feed the needy, and nourish watershed streams with fish carcasses.
Commercial gillnet fishers on the Columbia River will also be allowed significant opportunities to harvest the hatchery coho.
"This is an unusual year in terms of the sheer number of fish returning to these hatcheries," said WDFW Director Dr. Jeff Koenings. "Our overarching goal is to be as efficient as possible and put them to use in a variety of ways that benefit both people and the environment."
The coho, called "surplus" fish because they are not needed for broodstock purposes at hatcheries, are already beginning to return in small numbers, according to biologists. Their numbers should continue to build in the days ahead, and peak in the fall.
For the past five years, an average of 170,000 hatchery and wild coho have returned to the Columbia River and local tributaries, according to WDFW figures. However, this year the number is expected to reach more than 450,000 fish. The majority will be caught in commercial and recreational fisheries.
Department biologists attribute the increase to better ocean survival rates and new harvest regulations imposed in recent years to protect weak wild salmon runs. The regulations have reduced harvest levels and, consequently, allowed larger numbers of fish to return to the hatcheries.
As a result of the increase, biologists will allow more fish to swim upstream of the hatcheries to spawn in areas where they will not interfere with wild fish populations by competing for food and space. The department will also increase opportunities for recreational fishers. For example, on the Cowlitz River, the bag limit will be increased from two to six hatchery coho.
WDFW biologists said the department was able to provide the additional recreational opportunity because the returning coho had their adipose fins clipped before they were released from the hatchery 18 months ago. Hence, recreational fishers can easily identify the hatchery coho from wild fish, and can release any wild fish they might catch back into the water unharmed.
In recent years, the department has stepped up efforts in southwest Washington and elsewhere to mark hatchery fish so selective fishing opportunities can occur. Selective fisheries are expected to become more prevalent as efforts continue to recover and conserve weak wild salmon stocks and maintain sustainable fisheries on healthy wild and hatchery stocks.
Koenings said more commercial fishing for the surplus coho would have been allowed if the industry were able to employ other selective fishing techniques.
"Ideally, both recreational and commercial fishers would be allowed to harvest the surplus hatchery coho coming back to these hatcheries to the extent biology says is sound," Koenings said. "Unfortunately, we can't do that at this point in time without sacrificing our conservation goals for wild stocks."
Koenings said the experiment recently undertaken by WDFW in Puget Sound with a new type of net known as a "tangle" net is an example of WDFW's efforts to work with the commercial industry to develop new selective fishing gear. The net, still in the developmental stage, is aimed at significantly increasing the survival rate of fish returned to the water after they have been caught.
Besides increased recreational fishing, the department also plans to provide some 300,000 pounds of the surplus coho for statewide distribution to food banks and the state for institutional facility needs. The hatchery with the largest number of surplus coho destined for food banks is expected to be the Lewis Fish Hatchery, where an estimated 30,000 fish may be available.
Additionally, carcasses from some of the surplus fish will be used to enhance stream nutrients in a number of creeks and other waterways. Watersheds are nourished by salmon carcasses, which are packed with chemical nutrients and serve the dietary needs—directly or indirectly—of dozens of species.
WDFW biologists said Fish First, a non-profit conservation group, will be working with WDFW to distribute 10,000 fish carcasses into Cedar Creek and other major tributaries of the Lewis River. Other volunteers, as well as WDFW hatchery workers, will distribute carcasses elsewhere throughout Lower Columbia River tributaries.
For additional information see the following WDFW fact sheets: