Cathlamet Channel net pens rearing spring chinook

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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CATHLAMET — The floating net pens are secured to the city dock, the spring chinook are rearing and Cathlamet Channel is on its way to becoming Washington’s next off-channel commercial fishing spot, a small piece of the much larger Columbia River reforms.

Ten net pens were moved here in January and filled with 250,000 Cowlitz River-origin spring chinook smolts. The young fish will be released in a couple of months to make the short journey to the ocean. The initial return of adult spring chinook from the release will be in 2016.

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In 2013, Washington and Oregon adopted the biggest overhaul of lower Columbia River sport and commercial fishing policies in many decades.

Among the changes is sportsmen get a larger share of spring chinook and summer chinook in the main stem of the lower Columbia. Gillnetting in main river is being transitioned to purse seines and beach seines, which allow for live capture of fish and have a higher survival of released wild stocks.

Gillnetting is being shifted by 2017 into off-channel areas at Youngs Bay, Tongue Point and Blind Slough in Oregon and Deep River in Washington.

While coho return adequately to Deep River, spring chinook do not.

Guy Norman, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that releases of 350,000 young spring chinook at Deep River yielded commercial catches of only about 100 adult salmon.

“Good for coho, poor for spring chinook,’’ Norman told the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this month. “That’s why we’re trying to see if we can work with spring chinook in Cathlamet Channel.

The channel is the portion of the Columbia River between Puget Island and the Washington mainland shore.

“We focused on Cathlamet Channel as really the only viable, large-area option in the state of Washington,’’ Norman said.

Heath Heikkila of the Coastal Conservation Association told the commission his group has concerns about Cathlamet Channel. Test fishing found 51 percent upper Columbia spring chinook, 49 percent lower Columbia spring chinook and about 20 percent wild salmon, he said.

“There were some outside stocks in Cathlamet Channel,’’ Norman said. “Of course, we don’t have the local stocks coming back yet, so the ratio is an unknown at this point.’’

Conrad Mahnken, a commission member from Kitsap County, said Cathlamet Channel is not really an off-channel location.

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, agreed.

“It’s probably a stretch to say it’s a SAFE (Select Area Fishery Enhancement) area,’’ Anderson said. “It’s an area we can put some hatchery production and have some relatively low encounter rates with upriver fish and provide some opportunity. That’s what we’ll have to find out.

“Absent this being successful, there are not a lot of other places….That essentially leaves the SAFE areas in Oregon with very, very, very minimal Washington participation.’’

Norman noted that a key will be for the Cathlamet Channel spring chinook to survive much better than the fish released in Deep River.

Test netting will have be done once adult spring chinook return to Cathlamet Channel to learn the stock composition. Commercial fishing in the channel might have to be with tangle nets, which are a small-mesh gillnet and have a better survival rate of released wild fish than traditional 8-inch-mesh.

Conditions in the Columbia might influence what returns to Cathlamet Channel.

“If there is extreme high water we may see a higher incidence of upriver fish,’’ Norman said. “If we get medium water we may not, because they like the main channel or Oregon side.’’

Greg Johnson, a commercial fisherman from Vancouver, said it is important to test fish throughout the Cathlamet Channel. Some spots might have higher percentages of upper Columbia fish than others.

“It’s not sure necessarily all fish enter from the bottom as you would expect, that they just come right through the system,’’ Johnson said. “Some may be backing down. You don’t know what the fishery would actually look like.’