Onalaska Community Gathers as Students Release Thousands of Fish


Members of the Onalaska community gathered at Carlisle Lake on Thursday to watch as students from Onalaska High School’s aquaculture program released 100,000 coho salmon and 35,000 steelhead into Gheer Creek. 

The aquaculture program is a class at Onalaska High School that allows students to operate a hatchery in coordination with the school, the state and local tribes. Students can learn a variety of tasks, including fish husbandry, feeding, plumbing and electrical work. The program has a fish rearing facility with large tanks and other equipment for students to raise fish on the high school campus. 

As the aquaculture students released the fish by pumping them through a tube over a dam that has separated the lake from the creek since the 1980s, hundreds of Onalaska students joined members of the public, Lewis County Commissioner Scott Brummer and a representative from Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez’s office in observing the release from the dam. 

Brummer praised aquaculture teacher Kevin Hoffman for his work on the program. 

“I want to give all the credit to Kevin Hoffman… he’s done a fantastic job,” Brummer said. “He’s doing something the community can be proud of. … I’m excited to see such a big turnout here.”

According to Brummer, a former biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the aquaculture program is an important way to help improve the ecology of the area. 

“It’s a great education," Brummer said. “It lets young people learn about wildlife.”

Brummer also praised the Onalaska Alliance, a nonprofit that owns the park around Carlisle Lake, calling the group an important part of the community. 

“Lots of people come here and use this lake,” Brummer said.

According to previous reporting by The Chronicle, the Onalaska Alliance has been developing the park since it acquired the land in 2012. The park has been part of a broader effort to promote business in the area by attracting more people to come visit. Since acquiring the park, the Onalaska Alliance has added bathrooms as well as paved trails and parking.

Duane Blair, the chair of the Onalaska Alliance, was present for the fish release.

“I love it. It's a great learning experience for everybody and it’s great for them to have a space to use,” Duane Blair said.

According to Duane Blair, this year’s release was the first to have students from Onalaska schools who aren’t in the aquaculture program in attendance.

“The kid’s love it,” he said. 

Duane Blair added that Onalaska has one of the top aquaculture programs internationally, a point of pride for the community.

“I’m happy to be able to be a part of it,” Duane Blair said.

Also attending the fish release was John Blair, a board member of the Onalaska Alliance and the father of Duane Blair. 

“It’s an exciting program,” John Blair said. “It’s where I grew up.”

John Blair added he’s enjoyed supporting the high school on the aquaculture program.

“It’s just incredible to be able to work with the school on this,” he said. 

According to Hoffman, the program was started in the early 1990s and has expanded since. Last summer, the program received a new net pen complex. Hoffman said he worked with some students and others to put together the new complex, which features larger and more stable walkways between the fish pens. 

According to Hoffman, a large portion of the material used for the new pen system, including the entire aluminum structure and railings, came from the WDFW. The agency was using the pens on the Columbia River.

Hoffman said the total cost of the repairs was $20,000, including $6,000 for welding repair, and was paid for by the high school.

“The school has been very supportive,” said Hoffman, who estimated the total price of buying the whole system could have been as high as $120,000 if purchased new. 

The pens also include new nets, which Hoffman said are better, though slightly smaller, than the previous nets. He added the new nets go down about 15 to 20 feet below the lake surface.

The program has also seen other improvements in recent years. According to Hoffman, around 2018 or 2019, electrical equipment was added to increase the program’s fish-raising capacity from about 1,000 pounds to about 4,000 pounds. 

Supporters of the program believe it benefits the environment by increasing the population of native fish species that have seen population decline in recent decades. As a result of the work of Hoffman and his students, the program has successfully seen the return of many of the fish released each year. Hoffman told The Chronicle the coho salmon have a return of 0.8% to 3.4%, or 800 to 3,400 fish. The steelhead see a lower rate of return. According to Hoffman, last year about 10 steelhead out of 35,000 returned to the area, though this year, he says he heard a report that as many as 100 might have returned. 

For more information about the aquaculture program, contact Kevin Hoffman at khoffman@onysd.webnet.edu or at 360-978-4111.