Kudos, worries in Naselle about hatchery future

<p>Juvenile coho salmon rest in a pool of water while awaiting tagging by a crew from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Naselle fish hatchery.</p>

NASELLE — Commercial and sport fishermen expressed concern over Naselle hatchery decreases in Chinook salmon production, but Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife representatives offered some reassurances.

WDFW representatives gave a presentation during an informational meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 5, in Naselle on recent upgrades at the Naselle hatchery before taking questions.

WDFW Regional Manager Kirt Hughes thanked volunteers for helping restore the adult holding pond at the hatchery and for helping replace the old, inefficient weir with a new unit.

“We’ve had a lot of change at the Naselle hatchery in recent years, and I would say that that has been entirely for the good,” he said.

The largest round of applause of the night came after a comment from the audience, “That hatchery’s looking mighty nice. It looks like somebody cares about it.”

WDFW Region 6 Fish Program Manager Ron Warren said, “Over the course of the last year my phone calls about the facility are down to zero. Part of that is the attitude of the staff. The pride that they have and the willingness to allow a community to come in and participate in what we do.”

Gillnet Decision Impact

Questions for DFW staff were less upbeat and optimistic.

WDFW changed hatchery production goals in recent years, Hughes said. Naselle production of Chinook has dropped from 6.2 million to 800,000 in recent years. The plan is to reduce production further to 500,000.

This has drawn concern from some fishermen, especially in the wake of the recent decision to phase out gillnetting on the Lower Columbia River.

In response to questions of how the decision would affect Willapa Bay fisheries, Warren said, “We don’t know yet, but I’m going to guess it will increase the number of commercial fishers that participate in Willapa Bay.”

An unidentified sport fisherman replied, “Then there’s gonna be a helluva lot more people after a helluva lot fewer salmon.”

Warren said: “Not necessarily fewer salmon, because as we made these fewer Chinook that we’re hearing about at Naselle, that production went to Nemah and Willapa (Forks Creek). We did not decrease by one fish any salmon production as we made those changes. They just shifted to a different facility.

“It may be a different fishery. We may have to go into different areas. We’ve certainly tried to work with the commercial industry on trying to develop those different areas, like trying to get into the near shore of Nemah.

“Will it change what we do and how we do it? Absolutely. Are we still working positively to try to make those changes to try to test those theories? Absolutely?”

The reassurances did little to ease the sport fishermen’s mind.

“Well the rub is I fish the Naselle River. You got a whole bunch of early silvers, which we don’t give a damn about, because they don’t bite. You put in the bulk of the Chinook in the Nemah River, which is almost totally private property. The only place you can fish is the boat hole, and that’s the only place you can go after the fish that actually bite! That doesn’t leave the average fisherman or the poor guys who fish on the weekend much of an option.”

Warren thanked the speaker for his comments and encouraged him to attend the North of Falcon meetings where season setting is discussed.

Call of the wild fish

Rob Allan, fishery specialist at the Forks Creek Hatchery, said in an interview after the meeting that the shift in production works both ways. Chinook production and fisheries shifted north and coho production shifted to the south end starting in 2009. The shift is designed to give the wild stocks a chance to rebound in those areas, he said.

As the Naselle hatchery reduced its Chinook production to 800,000 per year, Nemah increased to 3 million and Forks Creek increased to 3.2 million, Allan said.

Spawning beds

WDFW drew criticism from some at the meeting for not monitoring spawning beds.

“We don’t have smolt traps in the Naselle River,” Warren said. The only juvenile fish trap in operation is on Ellsworth Slough and operated by the Nature Conservancy, he added.

“How do you know how good the spawning beds are working then?” a participant asked.

Hughes responded: “How well do we know the ocean’s working? It all plays into productivity. Unfortunately we don’t have the dollars to do the juvenile monitoring that we do in other areas. We focus on other areas where we focus on intense monitoring, and we don’t have one of those in the Naselle or in the Willapa.”

The closest site is Bingham Creek in Satsop.

Nemah resident Ross Barkhurst fired back, “Then how can you hope to run any kind of proper program on the Naselle River if you have no idea of what’s going on with the spawning cycle?”

Hughes replied: “We get it through adult stock assessment; so we know how many adults return, we know what the catch was, and what we use for forecasting purposes doesn’t seem to have much bearing on how much goes out of the system, because that production is limited by the fresh-water capacity. The real change is what occurs in the ocean; the marine survival.”

Predators in the crosshairs

Question: “The cormorants. Do you have a goal on cormorants? Since we can’t shoot them … at what point can we shoot them?”

Hughes said the issue is being addressed, thanks to an outpouring of public comments about the voracious birds.

“We’re trying to work on a plan to come up with an adult population and how to extract out and get down to a number,” Hughes said. “Whether they’ll get to that this year, next year, 10 years from now, I don’t know.”

He explained that those birds and several others are protected under a treaty signed with several nations and are protected under federal law.

Eelgrass

The state Department of Ecology may issue permits to clam farmers to remove Japanese eelgrass, also known as japonica. The non-native plant chokes out their clam beds. Migrating smolts use native eelgrass and Japonica as cover from predators.

“I’m not sure there’s been a comprehensive look at the intrinsic value of eelgrass and (how) removal might affect salmon,” Hughes said. “But anything that goes through the SEPA process, the State Environmental Policy Act, would have some investigation of the impacts that would be on all species, salmon … whatever. It’s not something that we’re not involved in, unfortunately.”

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