Contraption giving salmon room to spawn

It’s been eight years since the state of Washington installed a strange-looking, fish-capturing contraption known as a fish weir about eight miles up the Washougal River.

The fish weir was designed to capture spawning salmon and steelhead. State biologists release the steelhead and native salmon from the weir, but the hatchery salmon are sucked up from the weir into what looks like a giant vacuum cleaner.

A “whoosh” system sucks the hatchery fish down a long tube made of fabric, spitting the flopping fish into a tanker truck that immediately takes them upstream to the Washougal Salmon Hatchery, where they are put in a holding pool until they are processed for eggs.

State officials installed the weir to keep hatchery salmon from clogging up sensitive gravel-spawning grounds along the upper Washougal River so native fish populations have the room they need to recover.

“The weir provides an opportunity for us to intercept some hatchery-origin Chinook and prevent them from subsequently spawning with natural-origin fish,” said Matt Gardner of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “WDFW is required by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Mitchell Act Biological Opinion to operate weirs for this reason.”

The weir, however, has not proven to be so popular with locals who enjoyed catching the hatchery salmon spawning side-by-side with the native fish in the Washougal River.

Joe Mullen has worked at the weir since it was installed in 2011 and believes people are starting to understand why the weir was needed.

“I think people have started to accept what we are doing here,” he said. “There’s a lot less vandalism. They were throwing rocks into our trailer here at the weir and even spray-painting things. (There were) a lot of really mad people.”

Some anglers also were upset that fishing was banned within 1,000 feet of the weir, effectively eliminating what has traditionally been a popular fishing hole on the river.

During the summer months, the state keeps employees at the weir 24 hours per day, including security guards at night to protect the operation. So far this year, there hasn’t been any reported vandalism.

Chinook begin their return

As of Monday, Aug. 19, there had been just over 30 fall Chinook transported from the weir to the hatchery by tanker truck. The numbers will jump dramatically in the next few weeks as estimates show 5,500 fall Chinook will return to the Washougal River from the 349,700 Chinook forecasted to return to the Columbia River, which is only 47 percent of the 10-year average, according to the latest state data.

Those fish are just now entering the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean. Washougal fishing guide Steve Leonard reported excellent Chinook fishing at Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia on Monday.

“We are seeing good numbers out here, and everyone on the boat is limiting,” Leonard said.

However, the state closed Buoy 10 Chinook fishing Aug. 20 because of the below-average forecast. Leonard believes the fishing is better than what is being forecasted and expects the good fishing to move up the Columbia River and eventually get to the mouth of the Washougal River by early to mid-September.

During the 2018 season, the number of salmon returning to the Washougal River was below average, and several people who work with fish on the river told the Post-Record the most likely reason is something that happened back in 2015 and 2016. That’s when state officials followed a salmon-recovery recommendation that indicated there were too many hatchery fish competing with native fish for spawning grounds and dropped the number of fish released from the hatchery from 1.9 million to 900,000.

Salmon take between three and five years to return to the hatchery to spawn. A few years following the lower releases from the Washougal Hatchery, the numbers of salmon returning to the Washougal River were below normal, so in 2017 the state decided to go back to releasing 1.9 million fish from the Washougal Salmon Hatchery.

“I think that just might have been a fumble on somebody’s part because you know the numbers (of returning salmon) went right back up,” Mullen said.

The lower release numbers from 2015 and 2016 could still impact this year’s return, so the state is being cautious. That means anglers will not be allowed to keep Chinook caught downstream of the weir through Oct. 15, but that rule could change in the coming weeks.

“We are hopeful that if we are meeting broodstock collection goals and the return appears to be on track, we will be able to open Chinook retention early,” Gardner said.

Mullen, who spends his work days along the Washougal River managing the weir and walking the natural spawning grounds examining fish, is confident the weir is making a positive impact.

“It’s true that a lot of people who live in this area can’t stand this weir, but I think it’s been doing a good thing,” he said. “I’ve been working these fish since 2010 and before the weir you would walk up the banks and hatchery fish were spawning everywhere, which was a lot of competition for the wild fish.”

State officials say the weir’s primary contribution to Chinook recovery is through the removal of all the hatchery-origin fish and maintenance of genetic diversity in the natural-origin population.

“In 2018, we observed the lowest percentage of hatchery-origin spawners we have seen in the Washougal River basin,” Mullen said.

That means Chinook are still getting to the hatchery — thanks to the weir and “whoosh” system — while native fish now have free reign to spawn in the gravel beds of the upper Washougal River, just like their ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.