LONGVIEW — Local residents received more than the typical dried goods at a Longview food bank Thursday. The Lower Columbia Community Action Program distributed roughly 5,000 pounds of free, fresh coho salmon pulled from the Lewis River.
“It’s always a big crowd,” said CAP Warehouse Manager Lisa Blaine. “They love when we give out salmon.”
In an area surrounded by rivers, and only an hour from the Pacific Coast, locals sometimes struggle to eat fresh fish because of the price and availability, Blaine said. Nearby hatcheries donate salmon they don’t need to local food banks, in a state-sponsored partnership to feed people in need and save fresh salmon before they are too mature to eat.
For at least two decades, Washington State Fish and Wildlife has matched hatcheries with nearby food banks to ensure fresh fish ends up in empty stomachs instead of landfills.
Fish and Wildlife Hatchery Evaluation Manager Jill Cady said the amount of donated salmon to Lower Columbia CAP has dwindled over the last five years, from 10,612 pounds in 2016 to 2,450 pounds in 2020. When local runs are abundant, she said, hatcheries don’t send surplus fish to smaller food banks, but the larger nonprofit Northwest Harvest that donates to all Washington counties through a state-issued contract.
Kalama Falls Fish Hatchery Specialist Andrew Brown said salmon runs — except spring chinook — have been plentiful over the last few years. This week, the Kalama River hatchery plans to donate roughly 3,000 fall chinook salmon. Northwest Harvest in Gig Harbor is the first on the hatchery’s list through a state-issued contract to receive the hatchery’s salmon surplus. If Northwest Harvest doesn’t take the donation, Brown said staff moves down the list of local tribes and nonprofits, including Lower Columbia CAP.
Brown predicts the hatchery soon will have more donations; a nearly 16,000 surplus of coho salmon is estimated this year.
“Everyone will have a surplus of coho this year,” Brown said.
During different seasons, salmon varieties, such as coho and chinook, travel from local rivers, like the Cowlitz, Lewis and Lower Columbia, to the ocean, where they live their adult lives, and return to freshwater to spawn and die. Conservation hatcheries, like the Kalama Falls Fish Hatchery, work to ensure species don’t go extinct, Brown said.
Kalama Falls collects salmon to meet a state-issued fish quota to produce eggs for next season’s runs, he said. Fish over that quota are donated to those in need, before the salmon start to mature and are no longer edible, he added.
“We’re in this business to help the ecosystem,” Brown said. “The last thing we want to do is see our hard work come back and be wasted. Ocean-bright salmon coming back and going to the landfill — that’s never a good sight.”
Thursday’s coho salmon at Lower Columbia CAP was donated by Woodland’s Lewis River Hatchery, Blaine said. Warehouse Coordinator Melanie Stimson said another coho donation is expected in a few weeks.
To Blaine, any fresh food is welcomed at CAP, which, she said, has donated food to people in need through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for roughly 50 years. Before the pandemic, she said, fresh food wasn’t always an option through the USDA commodities program.
Today, CAP donates boxes of perishable food such as fruit, milk, eggs and frozen meat, and nonperishable items such as rice and beans, every third Tuesday to Cowlitz County residents who say they meet an income qualification.