CEDAR CREEK — Dan Balch parks his truck on a bridge over Cedar Creek, near Amboy, on a cool May morning. Balch and Gregg Glass, both volunteers with the advocacy group Fish First, get out of the truck and begin flinging frozen salmon carcasses over the side of the bridge. The current picks up the fish and sweeps them downstream, around a curve in the creek and out of sight, toward the North Fork of the Lewis River.
“Most of them will hang up the first two miles,” Balch predicts.
The 185 carcasses are all that remain from last fall’s hatchery run. They’ve been stored in freezers at the Lewis River State Salmon Hatchery for six months. The carcasses, and egg boxes placed in the stream at other times of the year, will provide food for juvenile salmon as they make their way downstream to the Columbia River and the Pacific.
Southwest Washington rivers like the Lewis are nutrient-deficient due to sharp declines in naturally spawning wild fish after a century of diking, damming, logging and other activities that have degraded native salmon streams.
Wild salmon die after spawning and their carcasses provide nutrients as they decay. But in most Southwest Washington streams, wild salmon are greatly outnumbered by hatchery fish, which return to their hatcheries to spawn. The state hatcheries can’t use all the eggs the spawners provide. Surplus eggs, and surplus fish, are the property of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
And therein lies a political battle that has been raging over the past year largely out of the Olympia spotlight over what is the highest and best use of surplus hatchery salmon.
Woodland-based Fish First is at the center of that battle. The feisty, hands-on stream restoration group collects about 19,000 surplus salmon each fall out of the 50,000 that return to the Lewis River Hatchery. Volunteers use the fresh fish and eggs for “nutrient enhancement” — returning biomass to the river. About 8,000 surplus carcasses go into Cedar Creek.
Fish First was founded by fishing rod magnate Gary Loomis, who regards these carcasses and eggs as a precious resource in the effort to restore runs of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. In his view, salmon streams in Southwest Washington need all the surplus spawners they can get.
“The most important thing we can do to recover these native fish is feed them,” Loomis said. “That means putting the excess carcasses in the watershed. We’re spending billions of dollars on habitat for these fish, but we’re not feeding enough of them for them to be able to use the habitat that we’re providing.”
Nutrient enhancement in Cedar Creek has resulted in a four-fold increase in salmon returns in recent years, according to one state study.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife agrees in principle that nutrient enhancement is a good thing. But it has other priorities for the excess salmon, including feeding the best of them to state prison inmates and to poor people through a statewide food bank.
Since the 1970s, WDFW has contracted with a Bellingham-based fish processor, American-Canadian Fisheries Inc., to collect the surplus fish from state hatcheries. For the past 10 years, the company has been the sole bidder on the state contract. It has had wide latitude to decide how to use the surplus salmon — up to 200,000 in some years.
Until this year, the company paid an average of $70,000 annually for all surplus fish at state salmon hatcheries. This year, WDFW hiked the cost of the contract to $100,000. Most of that revenue, after administrative costs, goes to the state’s 14 regional fish enhancement groups. Not a cent is returned to the general fund.
Loomis says that’s a giveaway. In contrast, he said, American-Canadian Fisheries recently paid the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife $600,000 for fish and eggs at just three spring chinook hatcheries on the Willamette River.
Under its current six-year contract with the state, which expires July 31, the company is required to sell a share of high-quality salmon to the Department of Corrections as frozen fish filets, charging only enough to recoup its processing costs. It’s encouraged but not required to donate other fish suitable for human consumption to Northwest Harvest, a statewide food bank.
However, most of the surplus hatchery fish — about 70 percent — are the company’s to dispose of as it wishes.
American-Canadian sells the salmon eggs to Japanese customers at top dollar as a culinary delicacy. It grinds up fish of lesser quality for salmon patties or cat food.
Fish First has challenged WDFW over the contract, saying the company has enjoyed a sweetheart deal with the state. It also accuses the agency of failing to hold American-Canadian accountable for how it uses the fish, and of giving short shrift to the need to replenish nutrient-starved streams.
“The state, through WDFW, sells a majority of the carcasses to a monopoly fish buyer who pays pennies on the dollar of actual value and has made himself rich at taxpayer expense,” wrote Jerry Brown of Woodland, a former Fish First board member, in a letter to WDFW director Phil Anderson last November.
“I believe the state is wasting a valuable resource,” Brown wrote. “The fish-buying contract, which is in the renewal process, should be stayed and the whole question of carcass disposal examined in the light of what is best for salmon recovery . . . Any new contract must recognize and provide for the majority of carcasses going back into streams that do or could raise salmon.”
“It is apparent WDFW lacks both a vision and a plan that invests in the whole cycle of salmon life,” he wrote. “They shortcut recovery by selling salmon carcasses that will go to pampered cats in Los Angeles and other places instead of rehabilitating streams.”
WDFW’s main concern, he said, seems to be, “How can they dump the fish at the least cost to them?”
Oregon’s hatchery program takes a different view, he said. “In Oregon, propagation is the number one priority and nutrient enhancement is number two.” In Washington, he said, nutrient enhancement is far down the list.
Good, bad, ugly
Heather Bartlett, a professional fish biologist who manages the state hatchery program, defends the hatcheries’ contribution to nutrient enhancement in streams.
State-run hatcheries made available 100,000 salmon carcasses in 2007, 117,000 in 2008 and 160,000 in 2009, Bartlett said.
“Some of those fish are actually worth money,” she said. “Twenty thousand coho went into the Lewis River this year. What’s enough?”
Brown takes exception to that question.
“Ten or 12 years ago, Fish and Game had given up on Cedar Creek,” he said. “Volunteers brought Cedar Creek back to being the most productive tributary in the North Fork Lewis River watershed.”
Bartlett concedes that under the existing contract, the state has failed to hold the contractor accountable for his use of surplus fish. “We’ve heard that criticism,” she said. “It’s not unfounded.”
That will change under the new two-year contract, which will be put out to bid July 1, she said. In the future, the contractor will be required to report monthly on how the fish are used, and the state will audit the contract annually.
“It hasn’t been something that we saw as a shortcoming until now,” she said.
She also expects the new contract to draw multiple bids, although it will remain a single contract covering surplus fish at hatcheries across the state.
Bartlett disagrees, however, that American-Canadian Fisheries has enjoyed a sweet deal. (The company did not return calls seeking comment).
She notes that the contract doesn’t guarantee the company a single fish, and that the number of salmon it collects from the hatcheries varies wildly from year to year, depending on the size of specific runs. For example, American Canadian got 102,000 fish in 2007, 56,000 in 2008, and 105,000 in 2009.
Also, the company is required to haul away all surplus fish from state hatcheries — “ the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.
The best-quality fish — those that have not yet spawned and are suitable for human consumption — may be valuable enough to allow the company to recoup some money, she said. Other fish may be suitable for processing into pet food. But the “ugly” — fish that have been medicated, or are heavily infested with a fungus — must be disposed of by rendering at the company’s expense. And chum salmon, which decompose quickly, have virtually no commercial value, she said.
Last year, the issue of how the state hatcheries dispose of surplus salmon landed in Olympia. The 2010 Legislature directed WDFW to bring all the stakeholders together, listen to their arguments, and come up with a more equitable plan that would “best utilize the resource, increase revenues to regional fisheries enhancement groups, and enhance the provision of nutrients to food banks.”
Fish enhancement groups, the food bank, Department of Corrections officials and the contractor all showed up to press their interests. WDFW reported back to the Legislature in November and began drafting a new contract to replace the current one.
Among the changes: The winning bidder will have to post a $500,000 bond so the state isn’t left with tens of thousands of decaying salmon carcasses on its hands, and the length of the contract has been reduced from six years to two years.
Bartlett said the new contract also makes clear that “best utilization” means the highest-quality salmon should be sold for food or donated to food banks.
“If you have good-quality fish, the best place those can go is to the economically depressed, to the food banks,” she said. Until now, donations to the food bank have been discretionary, she said, but “in the new contract, we are putting that in explicitly. We will have a sliding scale of pounds of fish provided.”
Brown sees that as a misplaced priority.
“There are a lot of ways to feed the hungry and a lot of ways to feed prisoners, but there aren’t a lot of ways to feed fish,” he said.
Jim Malinowski of Fish First says the current contractor has wasted large amounts of biomass in the processing of fish for human consumption. For example, only about two pounds of a 10-pound salmon end up as frozen filets. The fish skin and entrails that are disposed of could be put to better use in streams, he said.
That’s problematic, Bartlett said, because under state policy, waste from hatchery fish must be returned to the stream of origin to avoid the risk of passing pathogens into new streams. The alternative is to process the waste into sterilized fish pellets, known as analogs.
“The challenge we have is, some streams don’t have a lot of spawners, but those are the same streams that need the nutrients,” she said.
Nello Picinich, assistant director of the Washington chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, says the issue of how best to use surplus hatchery salmon comes down to priorities.
“The question is whether you view these carcasses as an asset or a liability,” Picinich said. “For the people who can sell them, that’s an asset. For the conservation groups that want to return them to the streams, that’s an asset. For the department, it’s a liability. Hatcheries in Washington are just happy to give those fish away.”