Finger-length fall chinook wiggle and flash by the thousands in the Lewis River.
In an age when news about salmon is mostly depressing, such abundance shows that wild salmon are at least hanging on somewhere in Cowlitz County.
The lower Lewis River fall chinook run is the only significant wild run of salmon left in the lower Columbia River. Along with the kings that return, they are the only two significant remaining wild runs in the entire Columbia basin, which once was the greatest salmon-producer on Earth.
“It’s a real eye-opener. You go out into this area with good habitat and there are a hell of a lot of fish out there and you’re not in a hatchery pond. It’s encouraging,” Wolf Dammers, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, says.
Even on the Lewis, however, the run is far from robust.
Like salmon stocks coastwide, the lower Lewis River fall chinook run is hurting. Fishing for them was barred on the Lewis last year, even though a near-average number returned. Forecasts are for a record low of 5,400 returns this year - only 40 percent of the run’s 10-year average. No fishing will be allowed again on the run which, in the 1980s, provided an annual commercial and sport catch of about 12,500 salmon in the Columbia.
Biologists are confident the fish will make a comeback if their habitat - what was left of it after Merwin Dam went up in the early 1930s - remains unspoiled.
“It is a little jewel down there - that little production area,” Dammers said.
But the 10 miles of river valley between Woodland and Merwin Dam is the fastest-growing area of Cowlitz County. Houses are spreading like Scotch broom, threatening the fish by increasing erosion, stripping riverbanks and fouling water with septic tank seepage and lawn chemicals.
Biologists and fish advocates have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to buy a key piece of habitat - Eagle Island, a wooded, brushy and inaccessible 240-acre land mass that splits the Lewis River almost three miles northeast of Woodland.
“Without a doubt, this should be highest on the list of things to get done” on behalf of salmon in the area, says Woodland’s Gary Loomis, president of the Woodland-based Fish First anglers group.
As a consequence of floods in recent years, the numbers of returning adults will be low for two to four years, biologists say.
Tagging studies conducted since 1977 have found that a majority of wild chinook adults make it back to the Lewis - unlike many other stocks that get walloped by Alaskan and Canadian fishermen. The fish hang around the Lewis several weeks to months before spawning, and sport bright skin with high-quality meat.
“They’re a prize fish,” Dammers says.
But the spawning area near Eagle Island is threatened with development. Owner Vernon Wagner of Arizona has subdivided the undeveloped island into several dozen five-acre parcels.
Recognizing that development plans could run into opposition, Wagner has offered the island to Fish and Wildlife for $1.5 million but would take whatever it appraises for, Gunderson said.
No deadline has been set, but Fish and Wildlife “has nothing in the works now” to purchase the island, Dammers says.
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