The Cowlitz River was once the sportfishing mecca of Western Washington.
Anglers would come from across the Pacific Northwest to fish on the Cowlitz, providing a substantial economic boost to local communities. These anglers purchased tackle, gas, food, lodging and supported a robust local guide community.
As mitigation requirements, large hatchery programs were initiated by Tacoma Power and WDFW following the construction of hydroelectric dams in the 1960s. These hatchery programs have provided excellent in-river sportfishing opportunities.
In recent years, many of these once robust fisheries have declined precipitously. However, there is still hope that we can bring back the once mighty Cowlitz.
A group of concerned anglers and conservationists from the Coastal Conservation Association’s Lewis County chapter (CCA) are working with fisheries managers with an overall goal of increasing the number of returning adult salmon and steelhead. This committed group of recreational enthusiasts recently submitted comments on the draft Cowlitz Fisheries and Hatchery Management Plan (FHMP). Their goal was simple: to manage Cowlitz fisheries in a way that achieves conservation objectives while also maximizing recreational fishing opportunity.
One area where we can expect realistic, tangible and successful improvements is with steelhead. An ocean-going rainbow trout, steelhead are the official state fish of Washington, and have been listed as a game fish in the state since the 1970s. Cowlitz River winter and summer steelhead historically provided excellent fishing opportunities throughout much of the year. Wild Cowlitz River steelhead, like other lower Columbia River steelhead populations, have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1998.
Unfortunately, many of the steelhead runs to the north, in Puget Sound and on the Olympic Peninsula, are in steep decline. Fortunately for Cowlitz steelhead, they are not targeted, caught and intentionally killed in gillnet fisheries, like their northern cousins. This is certainly helping to conserve these runs and a key reason we are still able to have robust fisheries in the Cowlitz River.
The Cowlitz winter steelhead fishery was once the largest in the world prior to the termination of the early portion of the winter hatchery steelhead program. To put that in perspective, the old hatchery program had a sport harvest goal of 15,400 hatchery winter steelhead per year! Following the early program termination, the release of undersized late returning steelhead smolts has become the norm, resulting in poor adult returns. In fact, 2017 and 2018 ranked among the six lowest recorded sport catches of Cowlitz winter steelhead since 1995. And following the end of the early winter hatchery program, the Cowlitz has not once provided a 15,000 fish sport harvest.
As a step toward promoting a more robust hatchery winter steelhead program, CCA has advocated that winter steelhead broodstock be managed with a goal of no less than 40% of the run return prior to March. These earlier returning fish will allow the hatchery additional time to ensure proper size at release, something that is not currently happening. CCA has also advocated that at least 90% of the released winter steelhead smolts be released at 5.5-6 fish per pound. This would ensure greater adult return rates and it follows WDFW’s steelhead rearing guidelines. Current production goals for winter steelhead are seven fish per pound, and unfortunately that lower benchmark is routinely missed.
Unlike the winter steelhead program, the Cowlitz summer steelhead hatchery program has seen solid adult returns. These smolts are released at a larger size than their winter counterparts, giving them a better chance at survival. According to Tacoma Power, the adult return rates vary from 2-5%, which is an excellent return rate. Unsurprisingly, the Cowlitz summer fishery has provided an average annual sport catch nearly 30% greater than the winter fishery over the past 10 years, despite having a near identical number of hatchery smolts released. That’s more evidence that releasing smolts at a larger size results in better returns, and more productive fishing opportunity, for Cowlitz steelhead.
The summer steelhead fishery is enhanced by the reinstatement of the recycling program – where fish that return to the hatchery are trucked down river to allow anglers additional opportunity to catch these prized gamefish. While the Tacoma Power-funded recycling program was reinstated, it has been limited in scope and only runs through mid-August. CCA has been advocating for increased recycling up to the recommended maximum of 6,600 fish through September, creating even greater opportunity for recreational anglers.
Because of its importance to the economies of southwest Washington, and to the recreational community, federal delegates are also interested in trying to make the Cowlitz River once again the sportfishing mecca of Western Washington. Recently, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the group in charge of helping Tacoma Power with their mitigation requirements. She asked for clarification on many key issues, including the improvement of hatchery survival, increasing hatchery production, and ensuring that extra rearing capacity for the hatcheries is being aggressively pursued. We applaud the Congresswoman on her efforts and desire to improve Cowlitz River fisheries.
Working alongside Tacoma Power, we can strive to implement the best hatchery practices, resulting in more and better fishing opportunities on the Cowlitz River. Our communities and anglers deserve it.
Tyler Comeau is the assistant director for the Washington state Coastal Conservation Association.