Suquamish raising coho salmon in nets at Agate Passage

By Christopher Dunagan
Suquamish, Washington (AP) March 2010

Fish were flying in Agate Passage on Monday, as employees of the Suquamish Tribe began placing 265,000 coho salmon into a net pen in Agate Passage.

The fish will be kept and fed there until summer, when they will be released. In two years, when they return as adults, the coho will provide increased fishing for Suquamish commercial fishers as well as non-tribal sport fishers.

“They will home in on the net pen site,” said Mike Huff, the tribe’s salmon enhancement biologist. “They will stay in the area a month or so, just swimming around. The sport fishermen should do well in catching them, and the tribal guys will get them as well.”

The Agate Passage net pen had been an ongoing state-funded operation for years until the end of 2002, when it was discontinued because of state budget cutbacks. Further budget cuts last year left the state with an excess of coho at Minter Creek Hatchery without money for feeding. The Suquamish Tribe agreed to take the fish and feed them with tribal funds.

The coho were kept at the Bremerton-owned Gorst Creek rearing facility in Otto Jarstad Park until Monday, when they were trucked to Keyport. There, they were loaded onto a tribal barge and shipped out to the net pen south of the Agate Pass Bridge between Suquamish and Bainbridge Island. A water pump launched them a few feet into the air before they landed in the pen.

To move all the fish requires between six and eight round trips, according to Huff.

The metabolism of the 3- to 6-inch fish will change as they acclimate to salt water, a process caused smoltification. Over the next few months, these salmon will imprint on the Agate Passage area but not on a particular stream. When they return, the fish should be available for harvest for several weeks until they start looking for fresh water to spawn.

Ron Warren, regional fish program manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said similar net pen programs for chinook were discontinued in 2000. Unlike coho, commercial and sport fishers could not effectively catch all the hatchery chinook before they headed into the streams and rivers, where they competed with wild fish. Wild chinook in Puget Sound are listed as a threatened species.

Warren said the Agate Passage net pen was approved by biologists who consider potential problems for listed species.

The coho in the pen were mass-marked by clipping off their little-used adipose fins. That will help determine how many of the fish make their way into local streams. Biologists walk the streams each week counting living and dead salmon. Puget Sound coho are listed as a “species of concern,” as opposed to the more critical “threatened” or “endangered.”

The Suquamish Tribe still rears 425,000 chinook at Grover’s Creek Hatchery near Indianola. Any of those fish that don’t get caught in the fishery tend to return to the hatchery, where they are harvested. Likewise for 500,000 chum at Grover’s Creek.

The Gorst rearing facility releases about 1.8 million chinook each year. Most of those fish are caught in an intense “dead-end fishery” in Sinclair Inlet.

Similar to the Agate Passage net pen, an operation in Elliott Bay delays the release of 500,000 coho. The Elliott Bay net pen is a cooperative effort between the Suquamish and Muckleshoot tribes. The Muckleshoot supply the fish from a hatchery on Keta Creek near Auburn in King County.

To load the fish onto the Suquamish Tribe’s barge Monday, the Navy allowed the use its dock at Keyport’s Naval Undersea Warfare Center.

“We are pleased to partner with the Suquamish Tribe on this important fish transfer,” Commanding Officer Captain Stephen Iwanowicz said in a statement. “This is a great example of how the Navy is committed to being good stewards of the environment, along with deepening the strong relationships we have with our Native American neighbors.”