Recycled salmon: There's a catch, and that's the point

TRAIL, Ore. (AP) — Ada Carnes is about to deliver yet another adult, hatchery, spring chinook salmon to a happy Rogue River angler, but first she puts a bow of sorts on top.

The Cole Rivers Hatchery technician affixes a small piece of gray, spaghetti-like plastic known as a floy tag to the fish's dorsal fin. The tag announces the salmon's status as a recycled hatchery fish — one that already survived the 157-mile angling gantlet from the ocean to the hatchery and gets to swim part of it again.

This chinook and 740 others were trucked downstream from the hatchery on a recent Wednesday and returned to the Rogue at Gold Hill, giving them another 36 miles of river to swim and providing anglers with a better chance at not going home fishless.

"We're adding fish to people's freezers that otherwise wouldn't be there," says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist on the Rogue.

"If you do a cost-benefit analysis, you really are getting a lot of fish in the system for very little cost because you're not raising them to smolt size again. They're ready to go."

Among Wednesday's release were 118 floy-tagged fish, which are part of a new study aimed at shedding light on when and where the recycled fish go when they're returned to the Rogue.

Initial data shows that as many as half of them do get caught by anglers during their second sprint to the hatchery, one of many tidbits about the upper Rogue's chinook habits biologists hope to glean from the study.

Samarin hopes that some of that information comes in the form of phone calls. He wants Rogue anglers who catch a floy-tagged fish to dial 541-826-8778 and report the information.

"It's very good information to see where those fish are getting caught and when they're getting caught," says Samarin, who is overseeing the study. "There's a tremendous amount of information that can be gained from projects like this."

The recycling program is popular among anglers who would rather see excess hatchery springers come their way instead of going away in the back of seafood-company trucks.

Excess fish are those not needed to gather enough eggs to grow 1.62 million spring chinook smolts annually.

Some are given to Native Americans to settle some of the state's treaty obligations, and most are sold, with the profits going into ODFW's so-called "carcass fund," which funds work at state-run hatcheries.

Anglers hate to see these tough-to-catch and awesome-to-eat springers go anywhere but on their barbecues, so the agency installed its recycling program in 1999.

Adults are collected and sorted at the hatchery, then they get a paper-punch hole in a gill plate to denote their status so they are not counted twice and skew run numbers.

They used to be released at TouVelle State Park so they wouldn't be counted again when they traveled past the counting station at Gold Ray Dam. With the dam's removal in 2010, excess fish can now be trucked to Gold Hill, which adds 10 more miles of river where they can be caught by bank or boat anglers.

While popular with anglers, the sticky wicket of the recycling program is that more hatchery fish might stray onto the spawning grounds of wild salmon. And the problem with the gill-plate punches is that they tend to heal before the peak of the spring chinook spawn in August.

The state's management plan for the Rogue calls for no more than 15 percent of naturally spawning spring chinook to be hatchery fish, so spawning-survey crews note the numbers of wild and fin-clipped hatchery fish they count on the Rogue's spawning grounds.

Surveys since 2004 show an average of 11 percent hatchery fish on spawning grounds, with just 5 percent last year and 4 percent in 2010.

But it's tough to see a gill-plate punch in a rotted-out carcass, so there are no reliable estimates of how many recycled salmon end up spawning with wild fish — a fact that could further validate or scrub the recycling program.

Samarin last year turned to the floy tags as a cheap and easy way to see whether recycled fish stray at higher rates than other hatchery fish.

As hatchery workers recycle fish captured weekly, some are fitted with floy tags — with a different color used each week.

The study began midway through the run last year, with 483 fish tagged and recycled. Of those, 230 ended up back at the hatchery and only one was found during the spawning surveys, Samarin says.

"So, you're basically looking at more than 50 percent of your fish going somewhere," he says.

Even factoring in a small percentage of fish that die before the spawn, that's still a lot more happy anglers along the Rogue.

With only a little publicity and no incentives to get anglers to report their catches, only two anglers called the ODFW office last year to report they had caught a floy-tagged springer. One was at Hayes Falls near Gold Hill about a week after it was released, and another ran out of luck in the last possible place it could get hooked — the Hatchery Hole.

This year, the plan is to release 4,000 recycled spring chinook between mid-May and July 1, with about 100 per week fitted with floy tags, and already some of the data is raising eyebrows.

Of 133 fish that were fitted with black floy tags and recycled May 17, 10 of them were back in the hatchery during the weekly fish collection on May 29.

"That's quick," hatchery Manager David Pease says.

So far this season, there's no buzz along the river banks of copious numbers of floy-tagged fish at the end of anglers' lines.

"I've heard of one tagged fish caught out of Hayes, but here, I haven't seen anything," Pease says.

Samarin hopes to hear from many others.

Over time, he hopes to look at such issues as when recycled fish get caught the most, when they linger in the Rogue longer, under what flow conditions they are most likely to get caught and perhaps even whether the recycling program could increase and what that likely would mean to anglers.

"Putting more fish in the system for people to catch is the main goal of the recycling program," Samarin says. "It seems like quite a few of them are probably going to get harvested."

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Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press