State stymies salmon-raising program

Central Coast Salmon Enhancement is hoping to revive its marquee activity — raising salmon for release into the wild — but is facing an uncertain future.

The last batch of Chinook salmon was released into the waters of Port San Luis in 2007 before plunging salmon stocks and other setbacks caused the program to close down.

Now, the Grover Beach-based group is eager to start up again but lacks a crucial state permit.

“It’s not looking too good for this year or for the future,” said Thorv Hessellund, the group’s board president.

There are several reasons why the state has not opted to give the group a permit.

The state’s emphasis is on habitat restoration rather than stocking, Hessellund said. Biologists are also concerned that the salmon could migrate up San Luis Obispo Creek and interfere with steelhead trout that spawn there.

Further complicating the matter is a lawsuit that challenges the state’s hatchery program, said Stephnie Wald, the group’s watershed program coordinator. The state is trying to settle that case.

“Our story is one small piece in a very complicated story,” Wald said. “The state is trying to determine if pen-rearing should continue or should they let nature take its course.”

The Salmon Enhancement group will meet with state fisheries authorities today in an effort to get some clarity on the future of the state’s salmon-stocking policies.

The waters off San Luis Obispo County are at the southern end of the range of the Chinook salmon, which spawns in the Sacramento and Klamath River watersheds. So it is unlikely that salmon ever naturally spawned in San Luis Obispo Creek, Wald said.

During the years when the pen-rearing program was under way, there were reports of salmon swimming up the creek in the fall. However, no study has been done to definitively determine if this is damaging to steelhead, Wald said.

For nearly 25 years, Central Coast Salmon Enhancement raised 140,000 young salmon in pens in Port San Luis annually and released them into the wild when they were big enough to have a good chance for survival.

The goal was to make more of the highly sought-after fish available to recreational and commercial anglers.

In 2007, storms washed the group’s rearing pens ashore. That same year, the state’s salmon fishery collapsed, meaning hatcheries had no young salmon for groups such as Salmon Enhancement to rear.

Unexpectedly this year, one state hatchery had enough fish for the group. They agreed to take the fish but later learned that they are stymied by the lack of a state permit.

“So, it is the old right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing,” Hessellund said. “Meanwhile, we are forging ahead repairing the pens.”

The group wants the pens in shape in case it gets the approvals it needs to move ahead this year or next.

The experience has been frustrating for the group because raising salmon has been one of its cornerstone activities.

“We at (Salmon Enhancement) are moving forward with some great local watershed restoration projects,” Hessellund said. “Yet, we keep trying but are not able to give much good news to the fishermen.”

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.