Onalaska Fish Release Highlights Valuable School Program


On Friday, members of the Onalaska community and local fishing enthusiasts gathered at Carlisle Lake. 

Joined by Lewis County leaders including commissioner Lee Grose and State Reps. Peter Abbarno and Ed Orcutt, spectators had the opportunity to witness the release of 35,000 steelhead and 100,000 coho salmon from Carlisle Lake into Gheer Creek, which have been separated by a dam since the 1980s. 

Many spectators spoke glowingly of the program. One local fishing enthusiast, Jeff Mason, said “this is so stinking cool” while watching the release, later calling the program “fantastic.” 

Grose also described the program as “fantastic” and said “Onalaska Schools have done a great job and the program is something we need to do more of.” 

Grose further stated the program was a “great example for people to follow.”

Abbarno, who was elected to the state House in November 2020, had the chance to witness the release for the first time. Abbarno’s reaction to the program was enthusiastic, calling the aquaculture class a “great program that most certainly needs to be replicated, not only for fish recovery but also for educational purposes. I think it’s just a really good program.” 

According to Abbarno, a discussion with Kevin Hoffman, the aquaculture teacher at Onalaska High School who oversees the program, after initial investment the program can release 135,000 fish a year at an annual cost of just $25,000. Abbarno said his discussion with Hoffman gave him “some really great ideas” for ways to improve the aquaculture program and how other schools could replicate it. 

Abbarno went on to say that “what’s happening in Onalaska should be replicated in other schools,” adding that “what we’re going to see in the long term is that these programs are going to help the fish population recover more than in areas without similar programs.” 

One problem Abbarno said Hoffman also raised was the knowledge barrier and the importance of having people with expertise who can help develop similar programs in other places. Abbarno said it was important to deal with the knowledge barrier so similar programs can be developed at other schools. Abbarno said he plans on seeking more funding for school fishery programs in future capital budgets.

Orcutt also praised the program, emphasizing the vocational training students receive in the program.

“I am very pleased with the job these students are doing to improve fish runs in the Newaukum River system,” Orcutt said. “They did an excellent job raising and releasing these fish and have learned important life skills in the process. I hope some of them will use these skills and the relationships they have made with various interests by pursuing careers in fisheries management and continuing the great work they have been doing in the Onalaska High School’s Aquaculture program.”

One spectator, Jim Dill, was the Skookumchuck Hatchery manager for 15 years until this past January. 

According to Dill, the release program improved as time went on. While the program now uses a tube that moves fish from the lake into the creek, that was not always the case. He recalled how only four years ago, fish were released by dropping them down the drain from Carlisle Lake into Gheer Creek. Dill speculated the previous system of release probably resulted in significant damage to the fish. 

Supporters of the program believe it’s beneficial to the environment. These supporters say the fish release helps increase the population of native fish species that have seen a decline in recent decades. 

For example, according to Hoffman, of the 100,000 coho salmon released every year usually 1,000 to 3,000 of them return to Gheer Creek for spawning, a number that is in line with the results of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fish hatcheries. 

The program is a result of cooperation between multiple entities, including Onalaska High School, the State of Washington and local Native American Tribes, such as the Chehalis Tribe. The state pays half of the cost of the feed while the Chehalis Tribe pays the rest. 

The Skookumchuck Hatchery gives the salmon to Onalaska High School when they are young so they can be raised until they are released. The steelhead, on the other hand, are given by the hatchery to the students when they are still eggs. 

The fish are held in three net pen complexes, while they grow in preparation for release. These pens are surrounded by floatation devices that enable people to walk around them and observe the fish. The students use these flotation devices to stand next to the pens while lifting the nets to send the fish into the tube that carries them into the creek. 

Around 40 Onalaska students were involved in making this year’s release possible. According to Hoffman, students in the program learn “a wide variety of tasks ranging between fish husbandry, feeding, science, math, plumbing, electrical, and operating hand and power tools.” 

The aquaculture program, which started in 2000, is a class at Onalaska High School which has a fish rearing facility containing large tanks and other equipment that allows for the raising of fish on campus. 

The release also shined a light on local community improvement. Members of the board for another supporter of the fish release program, The Onalaska Alliance, were also present at the release. The Alliance, described by one board member as a small community nonprofit, owns the land the lake and surrounding park are on and is very supportive of the fish release. 

Alliance Chair Cathy Murphy described the Alliance’s mission as consisting of four points. According to Murphy, the most important part of the Alliance’s mission is poverty reduction in the Onalaska area, as well as the development of natural resources, sponsoring community celebrations and bringing diverse groups of people together. 

The Alliance has been developing the park since it acquired the land in 2012. Since then the group has added paved trails and parking, and put in bathrooms. Murphy said the development of the park area has been part of an effort to promote business development in the area by bringing more people into the area to visit. Murphy said she sees the release program as a great partner. 

According to Murphy, only a handful of schools in the country have a program like Onalaska’s, which allows students to be involved in the raising and release of fish. In praising the program, she mentioned how it allows students to get hands-on training for skills they can take straight to the job market. She said the program is a “great fit all the way around” for the community. 

Murphy also made sure to highlight the contributions of Hoffman.

“Kevin has really developed the program,” Murphy said.  

Another member of the Alliance board, Murphy’s husband Pete, said that it was harder to fish nowadays in many rivers and streams in the area. 

Murphy said there had also been some difficulties in improving the area. For one thing, the Alliance, has to pay taxes on their land despite the land’s use as a park for the benefit of the community. However, she also said there had been major improvements with the park since the Alliance took it over. 

Murphy said the Alliance was able to start getting funds from the Legislature for improvements to the parkland. Murphy praised Gary Stamper, the former Lewis County commissioner for District 3 who died last September. She said Stamper was tremendously helpful and assisted the Alliance with getting the necessary meetings with legislators. 

She also praised former Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund, and State Sen. John Braun, Orcutt and former Rep. Richard DeBolt, who were able to secure a grant for the park in the 2019-2021 biennial state budget. 

For further information about the aquaculture program, contact Kevin Hoffman at khoffman@onysd.webnet.edu or at 360-978-4111.