- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

BELFAIR, Wash. (AP) - Since 2004, biologists and volunteers have been working to restore an extinct population of summer chum salmon on the Tahuya River, which drains into southern Hood Canal southwest of Belfair.

Now it’s time to find out whether Hood Canal summer chum can survive on their own in the Tahuya, said Clayton David, salmon and steelhead biologist for the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

This will be the last year that summer chum from the Union River will be spawned artificially and released into the Tahuya, David said. “Hopefully, they will do their thing and keep on producing.”

Even before Hood Canal summer chum were declared a threatened species in 1999, work had begun for restoring populations in several rivers where populations were barely hanging on. Remaining wild fish were caught and spawned. Their eggs were hatched in small portable incubators, and the young fish were grown under protected conditions until release.

In the Union River, adults returning to the stream were boosted from about 100 fish in 1999 to a remarkable 12,000 fish in 2004, David said. After the supplementation program was ended, natural spawning was responsible for all the production. Now, in most years, nearly 2,000 fish return to the Union.

David said he hopes for a similar response on the Tahuya River, where annual returns have ranged from 200 to more than 1,000 summer chum.

“In general, the Tahuya has far better habitat than the Union,” David said. “The habitat is there for them, and this program seems to be working.”

A central aspect of the hatchery program has been a fish trap on the Union River along North Shore Road just west of Belfair. The trap, operated in large part by volunteers, provides precise information about the fish swimming up the river.

Since Aug. 15, the trap has captured 560 fish. It will remain in the river until mid-October.

David said the fish trap will continue to be used each year, both for the data it provides and for the education it brings to community members as well as visitors.

“People stop by to ask what is going on,” he said. “It’s a great way to learn about salmon. People are always welcome. It’s a big community event, and we couldn’t do this program without volunteer help.”

Since the Tahuya River has never had a fish trap, biologists walk the stream to count salmon carcasses and apply a mathematical formula to estimate total returns. That monitoring will continue for several more years, David said, and volunteers sometimes go along to assist biologists with their surveys.

Hood Canal summer chum are a distinct stock, separate from the fall chum that show up weeks later. Typically, summer chum average 10 pounds with an occasional male coming in at 15 pounds, David said. Fall chum in the river normally range from 15 to 20 pounds.

In 1989, before summer chum were placed on the Endangered Species List, seven of the eight subpopulations in Hood Canal were considered at high risk of extinction, with one at moderate risk. Now seven of the groups are considered at low risk of extinction, with only one - Lilliwaup Creek on the west side of Hood Canal - remaining in critical condition.

Researchers believe that a primary reason for the original decline of summer chum was overharvesting by commercial fishers in their quest to catch large numbers of coho salmon. One of the first steps in the recovery program was to delay the fishing season for coho until most of the summer chum were safely back home in their streams.

Summer chum are still considered extinct in the Dewatto River, which drains into Hood Canal south of Holly. Biologists have long considered a hatchery program to restore a summer chum population to the Dewatto. Before that can happen, they must resolve genetic issues - including what stock to use - and develop a new hatchery management program.

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