Huge fish loss at Washington state hatchery

CENTRALIA, Wash. — After months of rampant rumors and speculation coming off of the Cowlitz River, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has finally confirmed what many area anglers had feared.

Of the roughly 625,900 steelhead and 90,600 cutthroat smolt reared by the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery for release in 2016, roughly 514,000, or about 70 percent of the stock, went missing prior to release.

Those losses are likely to have a negative impact on the summer steelhead runs of 2018-2019 as well as cutthroat returns as early as this summer.

To make matters worse, the WDFW says it doesn’t know where exactly the fish went. Theories to explain the huge losses include bird predation, disease, escape from rearing pens and wildly inaccurate and faulty counting equipment.

On Jan. 9, the WDFW quietly released a fact sheet detailing the historic loss of steelhead and cutthroat trout. On Thursday afternoon, WDFW policy coordinator for the Columbia River, Cindy Le Fleur, spoke with The Chronicle in order to more thoroughly address the situation.

“We’ve not seen anything like this before,” said Le Fleur, who was the only WDFW representative made available for comment.

Numerous attempts to speak on the record with hatchery managers and WDFW biologists were refused and instead passed along to Le Fleur’s office over the past month. At one point, when The Chronicle asked if the animals had died, an official from WDFW said no, but provided no additional information about the missing fish.

The loss of more than a half a million fish that would have begun making returns to the Cowlitz River in the summer of 2017 comes on the heels of another loss of about 100,000 fall Chinook salmon smolt in May 2016 when a net pen in Lake Mayfield was vandalized, allowing the fish to escape. This time around, though, there was no nefarious outside act to help explain the loss of more than half a million hatchery fish that fuel the most popular fishery on the Cowlitz River.

On the phone, Le Fleur broke down the numbers provided in the fact sheet even further, noting that of the 202,000 summer-run fish released in the Cowlitz River in 2016, about 183,600 are believed to have been steelhead, with the difference being made up by about 18,600 cutthroat trout. Although she was confident in those numbers, Le Fleur was entirely unsure of where the bulk of that vanishing 2016 stock went.

The cause that the WDFW seems to believe is most plausible is mass bird predation. The tiny fish are reared in lakebound net pens and are essentially captive targets for hungry birds. Le Fleur said that avian predation has been a known problem for some time, so preventative measures are already undertaken. However, she noted that the efforts are by no means comprehensive and added that since this year’s losses are unprecedented, there was little indication that increased protection was needed.

Le Fleur said that the protective bird netting at the rearing pens is not complete and allows for persistent and particularly piscatorial inclined birds to gain access to the fish. Le Fleur noted that Tacoma Power, which owns the hatchery as part of required mitigation efforts for wild fish losses caused by dams on the Cowlitz River, employs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to perform bird harassment operations around the pens. However, those actions are not performed continuously so the birds are free to return when the harassment agents leave. Le Fleur said that there has been talk of stepping up those harassment efforts to include lethal measures on some birds.

“Tacoma is looking into that,” confirmed Le Fleur, who noted that she does not have a firm handle on the regulations pertaining to the harassment of wild birds since different species are subject to different protections from state and federal agencies.

Le Fleur also placed at least some of the blame on smolt counting equipment that she said is known to be largely inaccurate.

“I don’t think it’s reliable, like if two fish go through at the same time. The counting equipment just isn’t perfect,” said Le Fleur. She also noted that lake debris such as sticks and grass sometimes wind up being incorrectly counted as fish.

Le Fleur stated that counting equipment is imperative to getting a handle on how many fish are reared and released each year but admitted that she is not sure where or when the fish counting equipment used by WDFW was purchased or if it is the most accurate option available on the market.

“We can’t count them in the lakes. What we do is we count them, and it’s an electronic fish counter, when they leave, when they are released. That’s part of the problem is you can’t know how many are in there at any given time. They’re in these great big lakes,” Le Fleur said. “I think the lakes are fairly deep and I don’t know if you can see your way through it. They are not your typical raceways that are long skinny ponds that are maybe four or five feet deep or something.”

Because of that inability to keep tabs on the fish while they are still in the lake rearing pens, it is unknown precisely how long the missing smolt had been missing before the discrepancy was discovered in June.

The fact sheet provided by Le Fleur noted that her department, which is contracted by Tacoma Power to undertake day to day operations at the hatchery, is currently working with the power company to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening in the future.

So far, Le Fleur says that the actions taken to prevent additional losses to hatchery stock include improved netting and increased bird hazing to include all daylight hours.

“Tacoma Power is in the process of doing an evaluation on the trout hatchery for a rebuild so all of those discussions will be a part of that, including possibly even redoing the lakes,” said Le Fleur.

Those future efforts could include nighttime patrols, shoreline pond covers to deter Blue Herons, and lethal action against some birds. The fact sheet noted that Tacoma Power is currently working to obtain a contract for the lethal bird hazing and anticipates having that program in place no later than fall of 2017.

Fully netted and covered rearing ponds are expected to be in place within the next three to six years.

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