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Report: Chum salmon are making a comeback

Hood Canal summer chum rarely get the respect their coho cousins receive.

Their oily meat seemingly is appealing only to other salmonids, which feed on the fingerlings. There wasn’t even a chum hatchery effort until 1991, when many runs near the brink of extinction were brought back to life.

“They were ignored because they overlapped with the coho and chinook runs,” said Chris Weller, a Point No Point Treaty Council biologist.

Yet summer chum now are apparently thriving, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), thanks to the efforts of biologists, hatcheries, American Indian tribes and private landowners trying to save a species listed in 1999 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The federal agency recently completed a report on summer chum hatchery programs in the Hood Canal and eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca regions. NMFS concluded that the summer chum salmon supplementation and reintroduction efforts “should significantly benefit prospects for recovery of the listed Hood Canal summer chum salmon.”

“This is definitely a success,” said Larry Telles, a fisheries biologist at the Quilcene National Fish Hatchery. “Our last chance to save these fish was through a hatchery program with the goal of creating a self-sustaining population which would have a surplus of harvestable fish.

“If we didn’t have the hatcheries, we probably would have seen these guys wink out. The big question is if we can stop rearing these things and let them rear themselves.”

Summer chum make their way back to their spawning grounds from late August through early October. Hood Canal fall chum, which continue to thrive, follow between November and January.

“The hatcheries are improving summer chum and not hurting the (naturally-spawning) summer chum populations,” NMFS biologist Tim Tynan said.

The agency currently is attempting to determine if salmon stocks, including Hood Canal summer chum, will be removed from the Endangered Species List in accordance with recent court decisions.

The complete NMFS report is expected to be released later this week, according to Tynan. It eventually will be posted at www. nwr.noaa.gov.

“The hatcheries have put thousands of spawners into the rivers and that’s good,” Tynan said.

Under a 12-year initiative developed in 1991, hatcheries are scheduled to stop rearing summer chum in 2003. Using hatchery and brood stock, chum runs have flourished in the Quilcene River, Chimicum Creek and Hamma Hamma River on the Olympic Peninsula and in Big Beek Creek near Seabeck.

“The intent is to use the project as a tool to bring the runs up, but not to institutionalize them,” Weller said.

“The time limit is designed to genetically safeguard populations,” Tynan said.

NMFS considers natural salmon runs more genetically diverse than hatchery runs.

Biologist Derek Poon helped write the 1991 initiative to save summer chum runs. Formerly with the NMFS, he now works for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“There is no question the summer chum initiative is a model for other salmon habitat restoration and some of the best work we’ve done,” Poon said. “If everybody did that level of work toward salmon habitat, we would be in good shape.”

Telles said chum don’t dwell in fresh water rivers and streams like other salmonids, preferring to leave for salt water only two months after hatching. Coho, in contrast, can spend up to 18 months in freshwater before migrating.

“Chum are a species that aren’t affected as much by water-quality issues,” Telles said. “They can be better-off with less work and that has made for a success that we don’t often make.”

Weller said chum, which spawn in the lower regions of streams, still are affected by sedimentation, flooding and development.

“We can’t write off chum because they don’t go up to the higher watershed,” Weller said.

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