Anglers decry decline of Cowlitz River fishing

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CENTRALIA — Cowlitz River fish managers projected columns of numbers of how many young salmon and steelhead could be raised on the river at a meeting last week.

“There is a missing column up there — what our punch cards tell you,” Mike Ferris of Auburn exclaimed. “We don’t like smoke and mirrors,” Ferris said. “We want it straightforward.”

Representatives of Tacoma Power, which operates the hatcheries on the Cowlitz, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife didn’t have statistics on how many Cowlitz fish anglers catch and record on their punch cards. However, many fishermen who spoke at the meeting agreed that catch levels have declined over the years.

More than 100 people attended the lively, standing-room-only meeting at Centralia College.

“We fish, and we’re not seeing the returns,” Ferris said. “I want to see something in your policy that there will be fish for the fishermen.”

“This is supposed to be a fisherman’s river,” said Ace Wade of Toutle. “It’s a Tacoma Power river is what it looks like.”

“I’ve fished the Cowlitz River for 40 years and I’ve seen it go down, down, down, down, down,” another angler said.

However, for fall chinook at least, it looks like far fewer fish will be released into the river in coming years.

Tacoma Power and the WDFW called the meeting to update the public on the extensive plans under which the Cowlitz River’s fisheries are managed.

Both the federal National Marine Fisheries Service and WDFW have policies that call for rebuilding runs of wild salmon and steelhead. In many cases, that means fewer hatchery fish are available for anglers because the hatchery fish compete for habitat with the wilds.

“This is telling us our populations have to meet standards of hatchery versus wilds on spawning grounds,” said Cindy LeFleur, regional fish program manager for WDFW.

WDFW is considering designated portions of some Southwest Washington rivers as wild fish sanctuaries, where no hatchery fish would be planted, but the Cowlitz is too popular with fishermen for that.

“Because this is the Cowlitz, we can’t ignore recreational fishing,” said Mark LaRiviere, senior fisheries biologist for Tacoma Power. “The Cowlitz River continues to be open 12 months out of the year,” he pointed out.

Hatchery production is governed by a plan that has to be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of the license to operate the dams. A 330-page plan submitted to FERC in 2011 hasn’t been approved, but it’s being followed for the time being.

Part of that plan includes an upper limit of 650,000 pounds of salmon and steelhead that can be released from the two Cowlitz hatcheries.

A committee decided how that should break down into numbers of salmon and steelhead released.

The most controversial aspect of current hatchery policy is a reduction in fall chinook.

Two decades ago, before salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act, 10 million fall chinook were released into the river. In recent years, it’s been as high as 4.8 million. The current goal is 1.5 million.

Fall chinook was reduced because people who live in the Cowlitz basin preferred that method, rather than cutting steelhead, LaRiviere said. Fall chinook are caught more by people who live elsewhere, and on the Columbia River, he said.

Tacoma Power and the WDFW are supportive of a plan to raise 2 million more fall chinook in net pens in Mayfield Lake -- if funding can be found. The Coastal Conservation Association is lobbying the state Legislature for $350,000 to pay for purchase of the net pens for this project and another $300,000 to go towards operating them.

“We’ve got to get more fish back,” said Clancy Holt, a fishing guide. “You need to push this program before our legislators and do net pens in Mayfield.”

Though the fall chinook releases have decreased, the number of spring chinook put into the river has increased from 900,000 to 1.8 million. Coho has decreased from 2.8 million to 2.2 million.

Steelhead plants haven’t changed much, with 650,000 summers and 650,000 winters, though no longer using winter steelhead that aren’t native to the Cowlitz means fewer fish are returning before Christmas.

Brett Bodenhamer of Chehalis said he’s fished the Cowlitz for 40 years. “I’ve seen good times and bad,” he said.

Bodenhamer said that Tacoma Power’s predecessor vowed to maintain fishing when the Mossyrock and Mayfield dams were built in the 1960s.

“Today, we do not have the quality of fishery on the Cowlitz River we were promised,” he said. “We were promised fish. We deserve fish. We are willing to pay for fish.”

Bodenhamer punctuated his stance by hoisting his 6-year-old son, Ty, whom he described as “a little fishing machine,” onto the table in front of him.

“You can look at all these retired gentlemen who won’t be here to fish in 20, 30, 40 years,” Bodenhamer said. “Ty will. He’s the future of our sport. Give him fish.”