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Originally published April 9, 2010 at 10:03 PM | Page modified April 9, 2010 at 10:06 PM

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State on the hook for $768 for every salmon caught in Puget Sound

And audit revealed Puget Sound's popular blackmouth fishery costs $768 for every fish that's caught.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Puget Sound's popular blackmouth fishery — made possible by a complex system of hatcheries that produce and rear these plump young versions of chinook salmon — costs $768 for every fish that's caught.

That's a calculation made by the state Auditor's Office in an audit released Friday of the state's politically popular key winter fishery.

Each year the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife produces hundreds of thousands of the juvenile salmon in hatcheries, then raises them for 14 months or more in ponds until they lose the instinct to migrate. Then the fish are released for fishermen to hook for sport.

But some of the same environmental conditions that helped push wild chinook onto the Endangered Species list — such as pollution and habitat loss from development — mean few of the young blackmouth live long enough to get snagged. And the many fishing restrictions imposed in response to the 1999 listing of wild chinook also scaled back chances for anglers to try to catch the hatchery chinook.

That means catch rates for blackmouth are such a fraction of what they once were that the state may produce 900 fish for every one an angler nets. And each of those 900 fish costs about 85 cents.

"They're expensive to raise — more expensive than most fish," said Heather Bartlett, hatcheries division manager for Fish and Wildlife. "And their survival lately hasn't been very good."

The auditor's performance review suggested the program was so inefficient it must be changed, a charge Bartlett's agency doesn't dispute.

But the program's goals were dictated by legislative edict in 1993 as a means to sustain and promote sport fishing in Puget Sound. It's paid for by license fees derived from saltwater anglers, money that is dedicated to improving fishing. So as salmon listings have curtailed other angling opportunities, there's been little political will to cut back blackmouth production.

"Fishing used to be open unless we closed it," said Jo Wadsworth, Fish and Wildlife's deputy assistant director for fish. "Now it's closed unless we open it. And this is a unique fishery because it is open in winter when many other things are not."

Sport fishermen on Friday were immediately wary. The audit calls on the Legislature to change the law to let hatcheries produce far fewer and far younger fish — juvenile chinook that cost only about 11 cents each.

But that could reduce even further the number of fish available to be caught. And that frustrates longtime fishermen.

"Has this program always worked right? No," said Clint Muns, with Puget Sound Anglers. "But I think we've made great strides. The department's commitment to hatchery reform is without question."

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Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the recommendation would be a step in the right direction, but they believe the auditor missed the key issue. They say blackmouth production should have been halted years ago because the large hatchery-bred fish are built tough and compete with threatened chinook for food.

"The financial issues absolutely must be considered," said Kurt Beardslee, with Wild Fish Conservation Northwest. "But I always hoped they would kill this program for biological reasons — not just because we can't afford it."

Fish and Wildlife officials have said they support the auditor's recommendations.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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