Tuesday, October 13, 2009

They Said it, Not Me

So the WDFW says the pink salmon are doing so well because, and I quote, "We don't manage it." Hmmmm...interesting thought. I think maybe it has something to do with Pinks being viewed by commercial operations as "junk fish", but hey what do I know? All the environmental factors/dam improvements haven't helped the coho, chinook or steelhead returns any. Soooo...yeah. Here's the story.

Angler's delight: Record run of pink salmon
Returning pink salmon have swarmed the trap-and-haul facility on the White River near Buckley. More than 470,000 have been moved to spawning grounds.

By Mike Archbold
The News Tribune

Biologist Steve Fransen calls the record pink-salmon run that has area anglers whooping for joy "nature at its finest."

He's not exactly sure what's happening, but he's impressed nonetheless.

"Fish are always trying to tell a story and we don't speak their language," Fransen said.

The pink run is doing so well "because we don't manage it," joked Mike Scharpf, area fish biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Like Fransen, he can't fully explain this year's massive run.

There are no management plans for pink salmon. There are no hatcheries.

These are wild salmon whose numbers have exploded in Puget Sound and on many rivers.

The record pink run is on display in the trap-and-haul facility on the White River near Buckley below the Mud Mountain Dam.

Since August, crews have collected more than 470,000 pinks and transported them to their natural spawning grounds above the dam, using specially designed tanker trucks. Their fingerlings will head downstream through the dam's tunnels to Puget Sound and the ocean.

Those pinks will return in 2011 and with any luck, set another record.

"I do believe this is a record number of salmon hauled at any facility in the country in a single season," said Fransen, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pinks, which have a two-year life cycle, return in odd years on the White River.

The previous record for pinks at the dam was 127,541 in 2007. In 2003, only 13,190 came home.

Their numbers may be growing but the market for them is still small. Pink salmon, which average about 4 pounds, are considered oily and aren't served in restaurants. Instead, they are often canned, smoked or salted.

Chinook and coho are the prize salmon, but their numbers aren't growing.

Last week, pink salmon were still swarming into the trap-and-haul facility.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the Mud Mountain Dam for recreation and flood control on the White and Puyallup rivers in South King County and North Pierce County. It was completed in 1948.
The trap-and-haul facility was built at the same time at the White River Diversion Dam near Buckley that for nearly a century has diverted water into a flume to Lake Tapps for hydroelectric power and recreation.

Every hour, 750 pinks are lifted up in the water-filled hopper at the diversion dam and emptied into three tanker trucks. They're hauled 13 miles upriver around the dam.

Record numbers of fish have meant increased costs. Andrea Takash, a spokeswoman for the Corps in its Seattle District Office, said the Corps received an extra $460,000 in federal stimulus money to handle the pink-salmon run.

Takash said the Corps is designing a new diversion dam and a larger trap and haul facility with three hoppers. The Corps also traps and hauls native chinook, coho and steelhead.

"Efforts like these serve to substantiate the feasibility of trap-and-haul fish passage alternatives when fish ladders (at dams) are not feasible," Fransen said.

He admitted the size of the pink-salmon return this year to the Puyallup and White rivers took him by surprise, even with the forecast of a record 5.1 million pink salmon returning to Puget Sound this year. While pinks have always been present in the White River, there were few of them.

Jeff Dillon, a biologist with the Corps at the dam, said conditions in the river have improved in the past 10 to 15 years, particularly increases in instream flows needed to support fish.

For decades, the White River served mainly to provide water for Lake Tapps and the hydroelectric project there. Flows were almost nonexistent in the late summer and early fall when the pinks returned.

The low flows also hurt other salmon species that called the river home, though in much smaller numbers.

Dillon said the removal of Tacoma Public Utilities' pipeline crossing, which acted as a partial barrier, also has contributed to the pinks' success.

Improvements at the dam have made it easier for fingerlings to pass back through the dam.

Fransen also suggested that small climatic changes that have expanded the pink salmon's range in the Pacific Ocean have helped the overall Puget Sound run.

The lesson of the pinks is simple.

"They are a good example of the resiliency of salmon if environmental factors can bounce back," Fransen said.

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