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The fish are jumpin’

Dan Cooper, owner of Possession Point Bait Co., pipes about 25,000 juvenile salmon into a pond at the bait company property. The 4-inch fish will grow another 4 inches by May, when they will be released into Puget Sound. - Matt Johnson
Dan Cooper, owner of Possession Point Bait Co., pipes about 25,000 juvenile salmon into a pond at the bait company property. The 4-inch fish will grow another 4 inches by May, when they will be released into Puget Sound.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Someone at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has noticed that Whidbey Islanders are doing a pretty good job of increasing the size of Puget Sound’s salmon population.

On Wednesday, it was payback time. After a fishing season that brought the best salmon harvest to Whidbey shores in more than 15 years, the state trucked 50,000 hatchling salmon to a man-made pond at Possession Point, where they will grow over the next few months under the watchful eyes of the fishermen who hope to catch them two years from now.

Continuing a partnership that goes back nine years, the state piped the live coho salmon into an aerated pond at the Possession Point Bait Company Wednesday morning. Bait company owners Dan and Angie Cooper and members of the Whidbey Island chapter of the Puget Sound Anglers will feed the fish between now and May, then release them into Puget Sound.

Used to getting batches of fish numbering between 7,000 and 32,000 in past years, the Anglers see the increased number this year coming out of a feeling of trust by state fish biologists. Angler Russ Ramsey said strong coho returns to Whidbey shores and Glendale Creek this year convinced the state that South Whidbey fish lovers are doing something right.

“The return I saw this year is the best I’ve seen,” he said.

At one time, the Anglers raised not only coho at Possession Point, but chinook salmon in the Langley Marina. The state canceled the Langley project indefinitely in 2000 after biologists determined that hatchery chinook were out-competing wild chinook.

Even so, the Anglers and the bait company owners are pleased with their coho project. This year, the fish-raising facility is better than ever. Last summer, the Anglers — with a grant from the fish-oriented Stilly-Snohomish Task Force — put up a fence around the bait company pond to keep otters away from the hatchlings. A few months ago, the Anglers added a second aerator to the pond, which will give the larger pool of fish this year more oxygen to breathe.

Until May, when the fish swim through a pipe into Puget Sound, the Anglers and the bait company will be fish babysitters. But when the fish return to Whidbey Island to spawn two years from now, all bets are off. Hooks, lines and bait are going into the water.

John Bartholomew, president of the South Whidbey Anglers, said this is a good time to be raising large hatchery fish populations. He said all salmon populations seem to be on the rise in Washington waters, which may mean some species that are currently endangered will bounce back over the next few years.

“They say we’re on the upside of the cycle,” he said.

The Anglers hope to continue to have big fish releases in the future. Though the fish don’t come cheap — the state put about $50,000 into the load it delivered to South Whidbey this week — Ramsey said the return of a healthy fish population is worth it.

The Stilly-Snohomish Task Force, a public granting agency that funds fish recovery projects, reimburses the Puget Sound Anglers and the Possession Point Bait Company for most of their fish-raising expenses.

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