Admitting they didn’t have a very compelling story to tell, Washington fishery managers went before a state Senate committee this afternoon to outline why they can’t account for hundreds of thousands of hatchery summer steelhead and cutthroat trout that were under their care last year.
“What in the world happened with those fish?” Sen. Kirk Pearson, chair of Natural Resources and Parks, wanted to know from a trio of WDFW honchos assembled for a work session on the loss of a high percentage of the planned spring 2016 release into the Cowlitz River.
Pearson, a Monroe Republican who in 2014 grilled the Wild Fish Conservancy over their lawsuit against WDFW’s Puget Sound winter steelhead program and then pushed for federal fishery overseers to quickly finalize needed hatchery genetic management plans to again release winter-runs in the basin, said that reading about the loss in a newspaper instead of hearing it first from the agency “makes us wonder about how management is with our fisheries.”
“Director,” he asked WDFW’s Jim Unsworth, “is this an isolated incident or standard practice for our hatcheries?”
“Isolated,” Unsworth answered, acknowledging annual losses do occur.
Typically, however, those are from disease, drought or flood — even fish bandits — but this is very concerning as it occurred on Western Washington’s best consumptive steelhead fishery outside of the Lower Columbia and there’s no confirmed cause.
Unsworth tasked Kelly Cunningham, the agency’s Fish Program manager, and Eric Kinne, the hatchery manager, with explaining to Pearson and a couple other senators, including John McCoy, what might have happened.
As he began WDFW’s presentation, Cunningham pointed to several factors, “none of which feel good,” with bird predation and a counting error his strongest suspects.
He explained that WDFW had initially planned to release 625,900 summer steelhead into the Cowlitz in May 2016, but some of those were lost to disease and other issues during incubation.
Around 540,000 survived and were moved from their raceways to a series of 5-acre lakes, but when the steelhead along with cutthroat were subsequently released into the Cowlitz, a counting machine tallied only 200,200.
“What happened to the remaining 340,000 fish? We don’t have a good answer,” Cunningham acknowledged.
He noted that three of the lakes are only partially netted at their ends, and while WDFW spends “down to the last penny” to prevent predation, greater densities of fish in two of the lakes could have made it even more of a buffet.
Cunningham also pointed to challenges of raising smolts in the large ponds, including their sheer size– 450 yards by 50 yards by as much as 11 feet deep — and the difficulties of enumerating how many fish might be swimming in them at any one time, thus giving hatchery operators a head’s up about an ongoing loss to address.
He said that fully netting them would cost $500,000, but there’s been “some reluctance to invest that money.”
WDFW operates the hatchery, which is owned by Tacoma Power. Fish are reared here and at Barrier Dam as mitigation for the utility’s dams on the Cowlitz.
In addition, some birds can swim through netting to access netted sections, thereby competing with the fish for food, according to minutes from a WFDW-Tacoma Power meeting last November.
While Cunningham pointed to bird predation as a “significant contributor,” he also drew attention to the device that tallies the fish as they leave the lakes.
“Multiple fish can go through the counter at the same time, but only one is counted,” he said. “We know that happens.”
Asked if that’s a problem at the state’s other fish-rearing facilities, WDFW’s Kinne said that they don’t really use that type of machine — a 16-tube conductive counter — elsewhere.
Fish are instead netted and weighed, but Cowlitz is different and requires this kind of counter. The facility was built 50 years ago to produce as much as a million pounds of fish annually, but that has been reduced by a third.
Asked by Pearson point blank if WDFW’s counters are accurate or not, Kinne said they were as good as can be, and the one at the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery is regularly checked. That said, it can be fooled by sticks and fouled by debris, staffers indicated.
Cunningham outlined a series of short- and long-term fixes, and also looking towards the future, Pearson stated that the loss was going to hurt the 2018 fishery and asked WDFW if they had any estimates on the economic cost of the loss.
“We don’t,” Cunningham told him.
While there is sure to be an effect, “What’s more important than the release numbers is marine survival,” Cunningham stated.
Ocean conditions could be good enough to produce an average return.
“That’s fingers crossed,” Cunningham acknowledged.
A graph produced by WDFW for today showed that major smolt losses on the Cowlitz in 2003 and 2005 subsequently produced poor fisheries,– but also that a release of 600,000 smolts yielded even worse angling in 2013.
Cunningham also addressed how slowly word emerged about the loss, first officially revealed during a November 2016 meeting with sportfishing advisors and Tacoma Power officials, then last month with the quiet issuing of a fact sheet by the regional office in Vancouver.
He said there had been a “failure” to formally and in a timely manner communicate about the fish loss.
The situation puts WDFW’s license hike request in some peril, and it certainly will remain on the radar of Senator Pearson, through whose committee any fee increase legislation would have to advance.
“Hopefully you’ll come back with an answer,” Pearson told WDFW as today’s discussion ended. “Happy to have you in front of us when you do.”