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Plug pulled on chinook rearing pens

"Russ Ramsey, left, and other volunteers from Puget Sound Anglers put the fish pipe in place to move another batch of young chinook salmon into Langley Harbor last October. The Anglers raised 15,000 salmon this year. The last batch was released early, in December, on orders from the state. Jim Larsen, file photoThe Endangered Species Act has put an end to the rearing of hatchery-born chinook salmon in the Langley Small Boat Harbor and elsewhere in Puget Sound.Volunteers from the Whidbey Island Chapter of Puget Sound Anglers have been raising chinook salmon in a boat harbor pen each winter for 10 years, according to Dick Trefts, who headed the effort.Also known as winter blackmouth, the salmon were kept in a pen and fed state-supplied food from October through February, then released into Puget Sound. The Anglers raised 15,000 salmon this year. The last batch was released early, in December, on orders from the state. A state salmon hatchery provided the baby salmon which the volunteers raised until they weighed in at four or five to a pound. Then they were released into Puget Sound where they tended to stay, rather than venture out into the ocean.Trefts said many of the mature salmon were caught by tribal and commercial fishermen, but others were taken by sports anglers around Whidbey Island and other areas of the Sound. Those that survived returned up rivers that would take them to where they were born -- the state salmon hatchery at Goldbar.And that's where the conflict with the Endangered Species Act arises, explained Adam Couto, a state Fish and Wildlife Department employee who supervises volunteer fish programs such as the one conducted in Langley.They go up the local rivers and spawn with native fish, Couto said Friday. With ESA protection for native chinook, we want to limit the wild/hatchery ratio. The federal act puts a high priority on preserving native fish runs.The Langley chinook project isn't the only one to be ended by Fish and Wildlife due to the ESA. Couto said the proposal is to discontinue seven chinook net pen projects in Puget Sound, all run by volunteer groups, including one in Oak Harbor. There will be no chinook volunteer net pens after that, he said.Besides the ESA, Couto said the chinook net pens were too costly. He claimed only 24 chinook from the Langley pen returned last year. That works out to about $50 a fish for food costs, he said. Trefts objects strongly to that return estimate, however. Many of the Langley salmon were caught but not reported by tribal and commercial fishermen, he said.The decision to discontinue chinook pens is all but official. Trefts said he and fellow Anglers member Russ Ramsey are attending a meeting today in Seattle to get more information. But Couto said the end of such efforts will come this year.The Anglers won't quit raising chinook without objection. Ramsey noted they have raised some 300,000 salmon over the last 10 years in Langley.They're the only thing keeping salmon going, he said.While winter chinook may soon be forbidden, there are other salmon raising options. It's not our business to tell volunteers they can't raise fish, Couto said. The local Puget Sound Anglers have another net pen operation on the west side, where they raise coho salmon at Possession Point Bait Co. Couto said that can continue because coho are not endangered, and the return rate is much higher than with chinook.Trefts said his group may also have other options, perhaps with spring chinook, which are not listed as endangered. Only winter chinook were suitable for Langley harbor, however. The city needs the net pen space to accommodate boaters during the tourist months. "

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