COUGAR, Wash. — Mark Ferraiolo gently grabbed the slightly anesthetized young salmon, identified its species, measured it, and returned it to the water at PacifiCorp’s new $63-million fish collection facility on Swift Reservoir.
After a tanker truck ride of a bit more than an hour, the little coho was released with 104 others in the lower Lewis River at Woodland, free to continue its journey via the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
It’s a scenario that hopefully will be replicated a half million times a year eventually as the long process to re-establish salmon and steelhead runs in the upper North Fork of the Lewis River becomes a reality.
As part of the 50-year federal license to operate the three dams on the North Fork of the Lewis, PacifiCorp and Cowlitz PUD are required to re-establish salmon and steelhead in the upper watershed.
Swift’s floating fish collector — the second of its kind in the world — is at the center of reopening 117 miles of habitat, said Frank Shrier, principal scientist for PacificCorp.
Adult winter steelhead, coho and spring chinook will be captured at Merwin Dam and trucked upstream of Swift Dam for release. Their offspring will be collected at the fish facility at Swift Dam and trucked downstream.
The floating fish collector was built at the boat ramp at Swift Forest Camp and barged into place last July. It began daily operation on Dec. 26.
“It seems to be working quite well,” Shrier said. “This is kind of a shakedown year and we want to fine tune its operation to make it work perfectly.”
The young salmon and steelhead in Swift Reservoir are looking for an outlet river and the fish collection facility provides one.
“The pumps are pulling the water out of the sides of the vessel,” said Chris Karchesky, PacifiCorp’s fish passage coordinator. “It’s creating a positive flow into the actual building itself — essentially creating a river.”
Ninety percent of the young outmigrants go into the general holding tank, while 10 percent are diverted into a sampling tank. Technicians like Ferraiolo and Brittany Winston identify, measure and inspect each fish in the sampling tank.
Collection of the young fish is waning as their downstream migration period is nearly over. At the peak in mid-June, the facility was getting 600 to 700 fish a day.
So far, the facility has collected about 14,300 young coho, 900 spring chinook, 170 steelhead, 500 cutthroat trout and 950 resident rainbow trout, Karchesky said.
The facility is designed to process 76,000 young salmon and steelhead daily.
Shrier said the fish cannot be retained any longer than 24 hours.
“The National Marine Fisheries Services wants us to keep them moving and not confuse them,” he said.
Currently, the fish are being released at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife boat ramp in Cowlitz County just downstream from the mouth of the East Fork of the Lewis.
Shrier said the permanent release site will be a complex of four “stress reduction ponds” along the North Fork of the Lewis near Woodland Intermediate School.
The fish will be held in the ponds for 24 hours in order to determine how many die due to handling and transport, then will be allowed to leave on their own volition, he said.
The goal is to capture at Merwin Dam and release upstream of Swift Dam 1,500 winter steelhead, 9,000 coho and 2,000 spring chinook annually.
This year, 730 winter steelhead and 400 spring chinook have been released.
For several years, coho were placed into the upper North Fork of the Lewis River to ready the habitat for the salmon to come.
But due to weak coho runs, no coho have been stocked since fall of 2011.
Shrier said it is coho that were stocked prior to 2012 have spawned and produced the young that are now wanting to head for the ocean.
PacifiCorp’s federal license calls for a decision by 2016 whether to build a fish collection system at Yale Dam and by 2021 at Merwin Dam.
By the numbers....
Employees needed to staff the Swift facility most of the year. More will be needed seasonally to sample the population as the fish runs increase.
The number of species that entered the facility on the first day of operation. The species were coho, spring chinook, steelhead, cutthroat and bull trout.
The number of bull trout, on the federal Endangered Species list, captured so far at the Swift facility.
The number of gallons of water per tanker load from Swift Reservoir to the lower Lewis. Each truck load can carry about 7,500 young fish.