Jeff Korth, WDFW Regional Fish Manager, and I recently wrote an article for the Wenatchee World’s Hunting and Fish Guide that I thought I would share. We wanted to get the word out about why we have fishing seasons for listed fish in the region and explain how those fisheries help support salmon recovery. You can find the article online with associated figures and photos through their website at https://www.wenatcheeworld.com/fishing/.
Most runs are well below historic numbers and many are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Spring Chinook are listed as “Endangered” and steelhead are listed as “Threatened” in the Upper Columbia due to the low returns of wild fish over the past several decades. As part of the effort to restore these runs as well as runs of other species like summer Chinook, hatcheries like Eastbank Hatchery, Methow Hatchery, and Leavenworth Hatchery raise and release hundreds of thousands of fish. These hatchery fish not only help fish managers meet tribal treaty fishing obligations and dam mitigation requirements while wild stocks are depressed, but also produce ‘close to wild’ fish from wild adults that are a positive addition to the numbers of wild spawning fish.
There are eight hatcheries in the Upper Columbia, one or more in the Wenatchee, Entiat, Chelan, and Methow as well as several in the mainstem Columbia River. In addition, there are numerous acclimation ponds spread out within the tributaries. Young fish are brought to the ponds from hatcheries to be reared and released. This acclimation of fish in the wild is the way fisheries managers get adult fish to return to natural spawning areas. The idea is for hatchery fish to return each year, spawn in the wild, and have their young return as wild fish. In this way, hatchery fish can contribute to the recovery of natural runs.
Part of the challenge of the hatchery supplementation model is that each year thousands of hatchery fish return to the Upper Columbia in excess of what is needed to supplement wild populations. Too many hatchery fish on the spawning grounds can overwhelm the smaller,
more vulnerable wild population so managers can only allow a certain number to spawn in the wild. Any additional hatchery fish beyond that number need to be taken out of the river and not allowed to spawn. This is where local fisherman can play a critical role in local salmon recovery efforts.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has established or is planning on establishing conservation fisheries for Chinook and steelhead in the mainstem Columbia River and in the Wenatchee, Entiat, Methow, and Okanogan Rivers to allow fisherman the opportunity to remove hatchery fish from the river. In conservation fisheries, fishermen in the Upper Columbia are required to keep hatchery fish so that those fish don’t remain in the river and spawn with wild fish. Without the help of fishermen it would be difficult to remove these fish from the river and in some cases fisheries are among the most important tools in the toolbox for fisheries managers. Excess hatchery fish that aren’t caught in the fisheries must be removed further upstream at hatchery intakes, weirs, and dams. In the Wenatchee River fisheries managers use Tumwater Dam to remove excess hatchery fish but in other rivers like the Methow it is difficult to remove fish and excess hatchery fish end up spawning in the wild. The difficulty in removing hatchery fish highlights the importance of having a strong fishery in place.
The key to the success of these fisheries is the use of mark selective harvest practices. Hatchery fish released in the region and expected to be in excess of escapement are mass-marked by the removal of the adipose fin (see photo above). This distinguishes them from their wild counterparts and those ‘close to wild’ hatchery fish (with an intact adipose fin) and allows fishermen to remove unneeded hatchery fish while allowing wild fish to continue upstream to spawn.
Although the fishery targets hatchery fish, wild fish are often caught and released. Some of those released fish die later in the river as a result of the fishery and therefore, when a pre-determined number of wild fish are caught, the fishery is shut down for the season to protect the remaining wild fish for spawning. All the hatchery programs and fisheries in the Upper Columbia River are operated under NOAA permits which require substantial monitoring by all fisheries managers. Managers are required to provide an accurate accounting of the impacts to wild fish whether through fisheries or hatchery broodstock collection. Maintaining the fisheries depends on anglers providing accurate information when checked for information by creel staff.
Spring Chinook and steelhead fisheries not only provide a crucial management tool for salmon recovery but also provide important recreational fishing opportunities. Last year, fisheries harvested over 6,000 excess spring and summer Chinook, and about 1,500 excess steelhead that were not needed on the spawning grounds. These fisheries provided over 40,000 angler trips between Priest Rapids Dam and Chief Joseph Dam alone.
Spring Chinook and steelhead fisheries in the Upper Columbia are published by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as an Emergency Rule on a year-to-year basis. The spring Chinook fishery usually opens around mid-May and continues into July. Summer Chinook seasons run July through August or October depending on location. The steelhead fishery in the mainstem Columbia, Wenatchee, and Methow, if there is one, opens in October and can run as long as the end of March, depending on the size of the run. Information about fishery opening and closures can be found through the WDFW regulations webpage (www.wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/ regulations/) or by contacting Travis Maitland, Wenatchee District 7 Fish Biologist, (509) 665-3337; Ryan Fortier, Methow-Okanogan District 6
Fish Biologist, (509) 997-0316; or Jeff Korth, Region 2 Fish Program Manager, (509) 754-4624.