With a strong run of fall chinook salmon returning to the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, Washington fishery managers plan to transport up to 5,000 hatchery fish upriver and release them upriver above the last of three dams on the Cowlitz River.
Working in conjunction with Tacoma Power, which owns and operates two of those dams, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hopes to reestablish a naturally spawning chinook run upriver from the Cowlitz Falls Dam near Randle. The Cowlitz flows into the Columbia at Longview, Wash., in the southwest corner of the state.
Starting this week, tanker trucks carrying adult chinook will make daily trips from the salmon hatchery to the release site above the dam, said Jim Scott, assistant director for WDFW’s Fish Program. The relocation effort, funded by Tacoma Power, is expected to continue into December.
"This is just the first step in restoring naturally spawning fall chinook salmon stocks upriver from the Cowlitz Falls Dam," Scott said. "We’re already working to reintroduce spring chinook salmon, coho salmon and winter steelhead to the upper Cowlitz River. This is a good time to move ahead with fall chinook as well."
WDFW is predicting a record return of 14,000 hatchery-reared fall chinook to the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery this year, and actual returns are tracking closely with that forecast, said Pat Frazier, WDFW regional fish manager for southwest Washington.
By relocating some of those fish to the upper watershed, WDFW and its partners hope to rebuild a naturally spawning fall chinook population that has declined to marginal levels in recent decades, Frazier said.
That may take years, if not decades, he said. More immediately, relocated salmon will improve fishing opportunities for area anglers, while the carcasses of the remaining fish will provide nutrients for other fish and wildlife in the upper river, Frazier said.
"Sport fishing is definitely compatible with this effort," he said. "While anglers might catch one in five of these fish, others will spawn naturally and help to create new generations of wild salmon."
That goal is consistent with Tacoma Power’s federal license and 2000 settlement agreement for its hydroelectric operations on the Cowlitz River, Scott said. The new initiative has also been endorsed by WDFW’s Cowlitz River citizens advisory group, established to make recommendations on the fisheries management plan related to that agreement.
Scott noted that transporting and releasing adult salmon upriver is just part of the equation.
Starting next spring, crews from WDFW and Tacoma Power will collect juvenile fall chinook salmon (smolts) at Cowlitz Falls Dam and truck them downriver as they do every year with outmigrating steelhead and other salmon species.
"Downstream collection will remain the toughest challenge to recovery," said Dave Becker, a member and past president of Friends of the Cowlitz. "Nonetheless, the dream of using the upper watershed for the spawning and rearing of salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout is alive and well."
Debbie Young, natural resources manager for Tacoma Power, said the utility and WDFW are working to improve all aspects of the process of moving fish around the dams.
"A great deal of effort is being expended by agency and consulting biologists and engineers to solve the downstream collection problems at Cowlitz Falls," Young said. While this effort continues Tacoma is happy to assist in this effort to restore fall chinook and increase angling opportunity in the upper basin."