OLYMPIA – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has received a $1 million Congressional appropriation to buy two automated fish-tagging trailers to help the agency mark hatchery chinook and coho salmon so that fishers can distinguish them from wild fish.
The trailers, built by Northwest Marine Technology with technical design help from WDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bonneville Power Administration, are expected to begin clipping the small adipose fin from juvenile hatchery chinook and coho salmon next spring.
WDFW began mass marking hatchery chinook and coho salmon in 1995. Mass marking allows fisheries on plentiful hatchery fish while not impeding efforts to restore wild stocks, such as Puget Sound chinook, which were listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act in March 1999.
The agency currently has just one automated tagging trailer and must rely heavily upon temporary employees who clip the small fish by hand.
WDFW has 17 hatchery complexes and about 90 individual rearing facilities throughout the state. These facilities produce approximately 115 million chinook and coho salmon each year.
"The ability to mass mark our hatchery production is an important component in providing selective fishing opportunity throughout much of western Washington, and without this program, the risk of catching wild fish from the weakest runs would be too great," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings.
"We are grateful to Washington's Congressional delegation – particularly Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Norm Dicks – for recognizing the value of our mass marking efforts and working to secure this funding for us," he said.
WDFW partnered with the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Northwest Marine Technology Incorporated to develop the high-speed machines to clip the tiny adipose fin without putting the fish under anesthetic or touching the fish with human hands, either of which can harm fragile young salmon.
The group came up with a 26-foot-long trailer that can be moved from hatchery to hatchery during the spring marking season. The computer-controlled device uses a stream of cold water to attract fish into a chute where they are separated by size and held for individual fin clipping.
The machine uses a high-quality camera and special software to position each fish in place for a precision snip that cleanly removes the adipose fin. Each machine can mark up to 6,000 juvenile fish per hour, or more than one fish per second.
Mass marking has already paid off throughout Washington state, Koenings said.
"The Columbia River hatchery spring chinook fishery generated about $15 million within the local economies, and anglers had their greatest catches since 1973," he said. "The coastal ocean fishery provided excellent fishing throughout the summer, and again, more fish were available for harvest this season than in any summer since the late 1980s."
Koenings said WDFW's weak stock recovery efforts don't end with marking hatchery fish. WDFW continues to test new selective fishing gear. For example, new types of fishing nets that entangle the fish in a tightly woven web, rather than trapping fish by the gills have been tested for the past two seasons during commercial fisheries in Willapa Bay and the lower Columbia River.
The agency has also undertaken an angler education effort so that fishers can correctly identify hatchery fish from wild fish, and release wild fish if required.