For the first time in 20 years, the Wenatchee River in eastern Washington has opened for spring Chinook salmon fishing.
Wildlife officials say it’s a sign of successful management of the hatcheries program.
Jeff Korth with the State Department of Fish and Wildlife says about 10,000 hatchery Chinook are expected to return to the Wenatchee River this year. Spring Chinook are listed as endangered, and the state has been using hatcheries to try to boost their numbers.
“So we finally got it up to where we’re getting enough fish back, ” Korth said.
He says the hatchery program is designed around conservation goals, not harvest. And now there are more hatchery fish in the system than is healthy for maintaining wild Chinook. So the state is opening the river for recreational fishing and only allowing people to take fish with a clipped adipose fin, indicating they’re from a hatchery. Korth says state fish and wildlife officers will carefully monitor how this plays out on the river.
“We’re out there checking on a daily basis, interviewing anglers and doing index counts, so that we can estimate every day, how many people fished, how long they fished, what did they catch and what did they harvest,” Korth said.
They’ll also monitor how many wild fish are caught and released, he says, and they’ll close the season before too much harm could be done to them, probably after just a few weeks. Any surplus hatchery fish that are left at the end of the season will be removed at a dam before they reach spawning grounds. They’ll be sold to tribes or donated to food banks.
Federal regulators call this “abundance-based management.”
“When we have fishing like this, it’s a sign that the populations in that area are improving,” said Rob Jones with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says they’re getting better at understanding how to balance hatchery and wild fish populations. And their regulations are based entirely on fish health.
“What we’re fishing on is hatchery fish that are surplus to what we need to spawn naturally and help with the recovery. So we’re cropping ones that we don’t want to spawn naturally,” said Jones.
He says it’s an example of successful wildlife management.
Advocates for wild fish say the state-run hatchery programs are too expensive and harm the ecosystems more than they help. Many lawsuits have been filed and fought over these issues.
But state officials say their successes are expanding. They expect another run of spring Chinook salmon to open for the first time in decades next year on the Methow River.