WENATCHEE — As it gears up to co-fund a large sockeye-salmon recovery effort in Canada, the Chelan County PUD will pull the plug this year on its decades-old, failed sockeye program at Lake Wenatchee, commissioners learned Monday.
“Sometimes you just have to say, ‘This isn’t going right. Let’s not continue to make this happen,’” Keith Truscott, the PUD’s director of natural resources, said in a phone interview Wednesday of the 22-year program that has cost an estimated $2.64 million, or about $120,000 per year.
Anglers who hope to hook Lake Wenatchee sockeye shouldn’t be affected by the decision, Truscott said.
Since 1992, the PUD has hatched sockeye at its Eastbank Hatchery at the east end of Rocky Reach Dam and transported the hatchlings to net pens at the north end of Lake Wenatchee, between the mouths of the Little Wenatchee and White Rivers.
There, the babies grow and acclimate to the lake water before they’re released to migrate to the ocean to mature.
Migratory fish “imprint” on the water in which they are raised and return there to spawn.
But even after more than two decades working with babies of different ages and releasing them at varying times of year, the hatchery fish never made it back to the lake in great number.
Fish counts reveal that 95 percent to 97 percent of the sockeye in Lake Wenatchee are wild fish, Truscott said.
PUD biologists still aren’t sure why the hatchery fish failed to return, Truscott said, defending the length and cost of the program as a necessity of research.
“It will be somewhat of mystery. That’s the challenge of rearing sockeye,” Truscott said. “It is not totally understood the critical elements that could upset their lifestyle rearing.”
Sockeye have a reputation as delicate fish to raise in a hatchery environment, he said. Like other types of salmon, they spawn in rivers, but their young prefer to “overwinter” in a lake environment before heading out to the ocean.
The PUD and state officials will continue to monitor sockeye populations in the lake and over Tumwater Dam, Truscott said. Recreational fishing for the species will continue as long as wild fish counts remain high.
As the Lake Wenatchee sockeye program winds down this year, the Chelan and Grant County PUDs are getting ready to break ground on a sockeye hatchery near Penticton, B.C., to bolster the species’ population in nearby Skaha Lake and the binational Okanagan River — its U.S. portion is spelled Okanogan.
Grant PUD will fund 55 percent of the hatchery’s $10.5 million cost. Chelan PUD will fund the rest. Chelan PUD commissioners Monday approved nearly $800,000 in additional funding for the project.
The hatchery will be built and operated by a Canadian tribal agency called the Okanagan Nation Aquatic Enterprise.
The PUDs have funded a successful sockeye pilot project in Canada since 2002, Truscott said. Groundbreaking should happen in September, with the facility ready to use by October 2014.
Sockeye are neither threatened or endangered, but the PUDs’ licenses to operate their Columbia River dams require them to work to bolster populations of the fish.