Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series on improving sportfishing on the Cowlitz River.
The Cowlitz River, once the sportfishing mecca of Western Washington, still provides popular and robust fisheries to recreational enthusiasts far and wide. These anglers provide a substantial economic boost to local communities through the purchase of tackle, gas, food and lodging, and they support a robust local guide community. Some estimates are that each sport-caught salmon provides $500 in economic value.
These popular in-river fisheries are fueled by the steelhead and salmon produced in hatcheries; funded and operated by Tacoma Power as mitigation requirements. Working alongside Tacoma Power, concerned anglers and conservationists from the Coastal Conservation Association’s Lewis County chapter are working to increase the number of returning adult salmon and steelhead in a way that achieves conservation objectives while also maximizing recreational fishing opportunity.
Popular runs of spring Chinook, fall Chinook, Coho and Chum (to a lesser extent) salmon return to the Cowlitz River. These salmon fisheries, along with the ever-popular steelhead fisheries, support our local communities and many of our local businesses. They also provide excellent outdoor recreation opportunities for everyone to enjoy.
Production of juvenile salmon, or smolts, at Cowlitz River hatcheries are capped at a certain poundage limit. Currently that limit is limited to a maximum of 650,000 pounds. This directive means that finding ways to maximize adult return rates is extremely important. Fortunately, we do have the knowledge and tools needed to improve hatchery practices and increase adult return rates to once again make the Cowlitz River the premier sportfishing destination in the Pacific Northwest.
Spring Chinook are perhaps the most prized salmon that return to the Cowlitz River, appreciated for both their flavor and fighting ability. Changes in spring Chinook hatchery rearing practices, including planting fish too early and too small, have resulted in lower adult returns. As a result, in-river spring Chinook fisheries have suffered years of closed and constrained fishing. Additionally, over the last two years, partly due to projected low returns of hatchery spring Chinook to the Cowlitz River, the entire mainstem of the lower Columbia River was closed to recreational fishing for the spring season.
Fortunately, by following the best available practices, these issues can be remedied. For example, recent studies have shown that to achieve the highest survival, smolts should be released from the hatchery at five fish per pound. Currently, some smolts are released at much smaller sizes — 500,000 smolts are released at 16 per pound in November resulting in abysmal survival and 800,000 smolts are released at eight per pound in March. These eight per pound smolts have about half the survival of the 500,000 fish released at the recommended five per pound in the same month. It is clear which scenario yields the best investment for survival rates and returns.
Overall, many believe that at least 80% of hatchery spring Chinook smolts should be released at five per pound in March, until new, peer-reviewed research indicates a size and time that provides better survival. Additionally, overall production of these highly desirable spring Chinook can be increased in conjunction with reductions to the fall Chinook program.
Sadly, current hatchery return rates for Cowlitz fall Chinook are pitifully low. In fact, the data from Tacoma Power suggests a measly 0.3 % of fall Chinook smolts will survive to return as adults! For the 2012 and 2013 releases, that number was even more dismal at just 0.15%.
We have advocated for the hatchery fall Chinook program to be reduced from its present 3.5 million fish, and the production be transferred to spring Chinook. Cowlitz spring Chinook contribute to endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, off-shore fisheries, robust recreational fisheries in the lower Columbia River, and are capable of providing an excellent and highly sought after in-river recreational fishery. Additionally, proposed changes to the Coho program could adequately fill the void during the early fall and would likely increase sport fishing opportunity.
Thankfully, the wild fall Chinook population on the Cowlitz has been rebuilding over the years, with the lower river meeting abundance objectives each of the past five years. Despite the resurgence of the wild run, anglers on the Cowlitz River have not been allowed to harvest wild fall Chinook (and frequently hatchery Chinook) while ocean anglers from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington coast, Oregon and lower mainstem Columbia River can harvest Cowlitz wild fall Chinook. Perhaps a different route should be taken with Cowlitz fall Chinook management. The nearby Lewis River, which has no hatchery fall Chinook program, offers a model in which wild runs have exceeded 30,000 fish and could potentially be replicated on the Cowlitz.
When reviewing catch statistics, it becomes readily apparent that the Cowlitz River Coho fisheries are incredibly important to recreational anglers. There are two components to the run – early returning fish that typically arrive between August to October and late returning fish that typically arrive between October to December. These early and late returning fish provide opportunity through much of the fall and have demonstrated a remarkable adult return rate over the past decade. Kudos to Tacoma Power for getting this right. Approximately 2 million Coho are released in the Cowlitz annually, with an estimated 1/3 of the current hatchery stock being comprised of the early returning fish. We have advocated for the program to be comprised of 50% early returning fish. This would more accurately mimic historic run timing and replace lost opportunity that might occur from a reduced fall Chinook program. Utilizing Mayfield net pens for rearing of Coho will also provide more room to grow spring Chinook to the proper five per pound size at March release.
An often-overlooked species, historically, Chum salmon were the largest returning run of salmon in the Cowlitz basin with annual returns of nearly 200,000 fish. Today, less than 300 Chum return to the lower Cowlitz each year, and current management plans show no desire to help recover them. As a starting point, we would like to have a minimum of 20,000 fry, at 1,000 per pound, be released annually in lower river tributaries. A viable Chum return could create sport fishing opportunities for anglers and would return valuable nutrients and help restore a key part of the lower Cowlitz ecosystem.
Tyler Comeau is the assistant director for the Washington state Coastal Conservation Association.