By Leah Weissman
Pilot staff writer
With ocean salmon sport fishing expected to close today until April 30, and the entire Pacific salmon fishery in jeopardy this season, the pink-fleshed fish that so many fishermen rely on for their livelihoods is disappearing from the ocean and rivers.
"This is the largest collapse of salmon stocks in 40 years," said Robert Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland.
With that in mind, the Brookings City Council Monday approved the development of a salmon acclimation facility at Ferry Creek Reservoir which flows into the Chetco River about 1/2 a mile up. The project, which was proposed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), is intended to increase the amount of Chinook salmon that return to the Chetco River every year, and ultimately maximize the harvest of hatchery-produced fish at the mouth of the river and upstream to where they were first released.
According to John Weber, Salmon, Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) biologist for the ODFW, a 20 by 30-foot net pen will be temporarily installed in the east side of the reservoir for approximately one month every year. From mid-September to mid-October, two, 20,000 groups of smolts will be acclimated to the area for a two-week period each, before being released into the Chetco River.
"This will stimulate their instinct to return to that particular body of water," Weber said. "We already have sites like this on the Umpqua estuary and Coos estuary. They are all run slightly differently, but this one will be similar to what's being done on the Umpqua."
The reservoir, which was once part of the community's domestic water system, is owned by the city and currently not being used for anything.
"I think it's a great opportunity to utilize a city facility for productive purposes and to increase the amount of fish that will be available in the Chetco River for local residents and tourists," Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman said.
The Chinook smolts will originally be reared at the Elk River Hatchery north of Port Orford, and transported down to Ferry Creek Reservoir. After "imprinting on the taste" of Ferry Creek, a total of 40,000 fish will eventually be released into the Chetco River part of a 150,000 fall Chinook smolt program in Southern Oregon.
In the project proposal, Weber explained that the acclimation would maximize salmon harvest by increasing the length of time the returning adults stay in the Chetco estuary also potentially reducing the proportion of hatchery-produced Chinook that spawn with wild Chinook.
The cooperative project will include the ODFW, city of Brookings and several local organizations, including the Oregon South Coast Fisherman (OSCF), Friends of Cal-OR Fish, and possibly the Chetco Watershed Council.
According to OSCF President Tony Hobbs, volunteers will help construct a square floating dock surrounding the net pen, and feed and monitor the fish on a daily basis.
"If we don't get involved, there won't be any salmon left," Hobbs said. "We are doing this for the community as well people come to Brookings to fish."
With private land along both sides of the dirt road that leads to the reservoir, volunteers will have access to the salmon acclimation facility via an easement.
"We are going to limit traffic to one or two volunteers a day just to feed and check on the fish," Weber said.
Project costs are estimated at about $10,000, including construction and maintenance fees. Weber said the ODFW will apply for several grants, one with the state and one through the Friends of Cal-Ore Fish organization.
Hobbs mentioned that the OSCF would also hold fundraisers throughout the year to help fund the project.
According to Weber, it will take up to five years to determine if the acclimation program is working to increase Chinook salmon harvest. If the project is a success, more long-term operations will be discussed between the ODFW and city of Brookings.