Guest Commentary: Finding Solutions for Restoring Cowlitz River Fisheries


Editor’s Note: This is part three in a series on rebuilding Cowlitz River recreational fisheries.

Over the past few months, the Western Washington recreational fishing community has looked to the Cowlitz River for opportunity and hope.

As rivers around the region were closed to sport fishing due to poor returns, and new restrictions like the prohibition of fishing from a boat were enacted on coastal rivers, the Cowlitz has offered some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise sad and unusual time.

Guides, weekend warriors and diehard steelheaders have come from across the state to fish the Cowlitz this year.

While it is great to see anglers lining the banks of the Cowlitz, fishing has been marginal at best. Once the largest winter steelhead fishery in the world, the Cowlitz is a shadow of its former self. And it’s not just Cowlitz steelhead returns that are struggling. Another poor forecast for spring chinook means that there will be no directed fishery for prized Cowlitz springers this year.

Thankfully, concerned anglers and conservationists from the Coastal Conservation Association’s Lewis County chapter are working with Tacoma Power and WDFW, with a goal of increasing the number of returning adult salmon and steelhead in a way that achieves conservation objectives while also maximizing recreational fishing opportunity.

In our previous articles, we discussed specific proposals for Cowlitz River salmon and steelhead hatchery management that would improve recreational fishing.

The well thought-out proposals are achievable but would require Tacoma Power and WDFW to construct long promised, and required infrastructure projects to fully blossom. Until then, Cowlitz River fisheries are likely to continue to decline, harming our local communities, both economically and socially, along with the greater recreational angling public.


Satellite Rearing Ponds

It has been 19 years since the Tacoma Power Settlement Agreement called for the construction of three satellite rearing ponds, and to date no ponds have been built, with only the utilities assumption of management of the Cowlitz Falls Dam raceways counting toward this mitigation requirement. Unfortunately, the latest Cowlitz River Fisheries Hatchery Management Plan (FHMP) submitted by Tacoma Power calls for a plan for these ponds to be made within the next decade, causing yet more delay on this important project. Talk about kicking the can down the road!

Instead, a commitment needs to be made to build these ponds within the next five years. The satellite rearing ponds would be extremely valuable in creating additional rearing capacity for spring Chinook or Coho, either of which will allow more room at the hatchery to grow spring Chinook to a larger size before release.

This would directly improve hatchery returns, which would help us avoid the current poor returns of spring Chinook that have plagued the Cowlitz over the past several years.

Additionally, the ponds can also be used to host resident trout fishing for handicapped and juvenile anglers.


Supporting Infrastructure, Hatchery Production and Conservation

Thankfully, policy makers are hearing the frustrations of anglers and local community members. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, in a recent letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), who are reviewing Tacoma Power’s submitted FHMP, pushed for the construction of the agreed upon satellite rearing ponds. The Congresswoman asked FERC as to what deadline Tacoma Power had to construct the facilities, noting that the FHMP includes no firm timeline for complying with this requirement of Tacoma Power’s 35-year hydropower licensing agreement.

Locally, CCA has been pushing for funding that would see the construction of a new spring Chinook hatchery on the lower Cowlitz River. Such a facility would create additional recreational fishing opportunity, and greater certainty for Cowlitz River fisheries.

Furthermore, it would provide needed prey for Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, who rely heavily on Chinook salmon.

Many state level legislators are supportive of the proposed Cowlitz project, and CCA will continue to work to secure funding for hatchery infrastructure, along with salmon and steelhead production, in Washington state.

CCA is also working towards removing non-selective gillnetting from the lower mainstem Columbia River, which would directly benefit Cowlitz River fish.

Non-selective gillnetting threatens not only natural-origin fish, but also the future of hatchery production.

Finally, CCA has worked with leaders in the state and in Washington D.C. including Congresswoman Herrera Beutler to see the passage of the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act in late 2018, which allows for expanded lethal removal of California and Stellar Sea Lions that are preying on endangered salmon and steelhead at unnaturally high levels.


A Final Call for Restoring the Cowlitz

Let’s face it, the Cowlitz River is not the sportfishing mecca that it once was. Considering the struggles that fisheries across our state are enduring, we need robust recreational fisheries on the Cowlitz more than ever before.

By implementing thoughtful changes to current Cowlitz River hatchery production, along with a return to proven, best hatchery practices, and the completion of promised facilities, we can restore Cowlitz River salmon and steelhead runs.

It’s time that recreational anglers, conservationists, local residents, Tacoma Power and fisheries managers come together and commit to making Cowlitz River fisheries “mighty” once again.