The precise details are stored deep in agency archives and would take almost forever to ferret out.
But here’s likely what happened: At about 10 a.m. on May 24, 1990, an angler brought a squawfish to the registration station at LePage Park at the mouth of the John Day River in the Columbia Gorge.
He was issued a reward – actually a mail-in voucher for $1 – and the technician took his fish.
“Twenty-five years, 4.2 million fish, and $23 million in rewards later, the sport reward program is still going strong,” said Eric Winther, program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Now, at its silver anniversary, the program stretches from Cathlamet to Clarkston, the reward is $5 to $8 per fish and squawfish have been renamed northern pikeminnow.
There are five permanent employees, 28 seasonal workers, a $3.5 million annual budget and 20 registration stations.
Fishery scientists working on salmon recovery in the 1980s realized that huge numbers of young salmon and steelhead were getting eaten by predators – particularly in the slow-moving reservoirs behind the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
“At the base of McNary Dam you could see pikeminnows feeding heavily,” Winther said. “There would be hundreds of them pooled just downstream of McNary.”
The reservoirs created a warmer, slower river, which suited pikeminnows. The predators can live up to a dozen years.
“Research showed a typical pikeminnow might eat up to 15 smolts a day,” Winther said.
It can take smolts from the Snake or upper Columbia a couple of months to pass through up to eight reservoirs just to get to the free-flowing stretch downstream of Bonneville Dam.
Research also showed a long-term reduction of 10 percent to 20 percent in the pikeminnow population could reduce predation on downstream-migrating salmon and steelhead by 50 percent.
Much of the research was conducted in the John Day pool, the 70 miles of the Columbia between John Day and McNary dams.
So, on May 24, 1990, the sport-reward program made a humble debut.
It only applied in the John Day pool. There were four registration stations, staffed only from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. The reward was just $1 and the fish had to be 11 inches or longer.
Two months later, the bounty was increased to $3, three registration stations extended their hours to 9 p.m. and the station at Arlington Marina was closed due to lack of participation.
The catch for the summer was 4,681 pikeminnow – and the point was proven a reward-based sport fishery could save salmon by reducing large numbers of their No. 1 predator.
In 1991, the program expanded to 15 locations.
The pikeminnow reward program has been assessed by the Northwest Power Planning Council’s Independent Science Review Panel and gotten high marks several times. It’s been added as a permanent part of the federal government’s biological opinion for the Columbia River operations.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife uses mark-and-recapture techniques to measure exploitation of the pikeminnow population.
“Last year, we removed about 11.5 percent, and that’s on the low side,” Winther said. “It’s been as high as 19 percent.”
Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said the treaty tribes have a “nuanced view” of the sport-reward program.
“It’s hard to assess if it’s the best way to reduce predation,” he said. “It certainly does some good.”
The tribes agree the reservoir habitat created by the Columbia River dams has created an environment good for pikeminnow, but not so good for salmon, he said.
Tribal policy officials would like to see a more comprehensive effort aimed at an “out-of-balance system.”
Salmon predators include marine mammals, some birds and other fish species, Ellis said.
“Walleye and bass can and do eat a lot of salmon smolts,” he said. “We’re not doing a lot with other predator fish.”
Pikeminnow removal helps, but it might be a small part of an overall strategy that also addresses predatory birds and sea lions, Ellis said.
Some tribal fishermen would like to make a few extra dollars when they catch a pikeminnow in their nets, but there’s no avenue to do so, he said.
“A system where they can catch a few, put them on ice, store them up, and then turn them in might do that,” Ellis said.
And what happens to the 170,000 or so pikeminnows caught annually by reward anglers?
“In the old days, circa 1992, pikeminnow were sorted into food or non-food quality,” he said. “The food-quality fish were shipped to Iowa where they we’re turned into gefilte fish. Now, they are typically turned into fish meal, fertilizer and animal food.”
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