Most days this time of year, James Losee is working on salmon or steelhead projects for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But when he can, the state fish biologist slips on his waders and life jacket, and joins the crew using a beach seine net to capture smelt along South Sound beaches.
Losee’s interest is not the forage fish that are the focus of a Fish and Wildlife research project. It’s the larger fish also caught as the net is brought to shore.
Hip deep in Puget Sound on a sunny late March morning on an Olympia area beach, Losee smiles as he helps haul in a net that includes a dozen or so coastal cutthroat trout.
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It’s exactly what Losee hoped to see as he continues a somewhat unofficial study of the cutthroat trout populations in the South Sound.
“We’re trying to get an idea of when they’re in the marine environment, their distribution and ultimately how many there are out there,” Losee said.
While he admits the trout don’t have the appeal of salmon or steelhead, the species is a popular target for fly fishermen. Some of the best action in Puget Sound takes places from Tacoma to Olympia.
“There is this unique group that fishes for them. But because the species isn’t commercially viable, the state has been kind of hands off,” Losee said. “The majority of the management strategy has been to limit harvest and let them take care of themselves.
“Here in the South Sound, we know more about this species than anywhere else in the state, and maybe the whole West Coast, which is pretty concerning because we know so little,” he added.
For the last nine years, Losee and others have looked for cutthroat redds, the stream-bottom nest where the females lay their eggs, when walking streams that feed into Puget Sound.
But, he admitted, they rarely see live fish.
When he realized the forage fish crews were capturing cutthroat, Losee jumped at the opportunity, hoping to expand how much they know about the species.
“We’re basically using volunteer work and piggy backing on other work the department is doing hoping we’re able to answer some of these questions,” Losee said.
When cutthroat were caught in the net, they were quickly placed in saltwater-filled garbage cans with aerators to keep the water oxygenated. Losee then placed several fish into a bucket that contains a chemical that keeps the fish from thrashing as they are measured and marked.
He then grabbed a trout, measured it length, took some scales and clipped a piece of a fin. Co-worker Riley Freeman recorded the data and gathered the samples.
Will Dezan was in charge of marking the fish. Using a small needle, he injected a small colored strip of plastic on the underside of the fish’s jaw. A different color is used each day the crew has been marking fish.
Once a fish is measured, sampled and marked — a process that takes about 30 seconds per fish — it’s placed in another garbage can to recover. When the work was done that morning, the fish were released back into the Sound.
Even thought they have tagged fish just once a month since January, Losee is seeing some trends.
“The size of the populations are unknown but they are very local. That is exactly in line with what fishermen are telling us,” he said.
“When we come back to these spots, we know we can catch these same fish over and over.”
That was the case this day, as all but two of the fish caught had been previously marked. Some of the fish had a complete complement of red, orange, yellow and blue marks.
“But where these fish go to spawn, or where they come from, we really don’t know,” he said. “If we catch it in Eld Inlet, does it spawn in Kennedy Creek or somewhere else?
“Our hypothesis right now is they are staying in the marine environment close to their spawning stream.”
By the end of the morning’s netting, Losee and his crew marked 29 trout, pushing their total to about 200 trout.
Losee said he hopes the effort, small though it might be, will provide some answers.
“We’re just trying to open what is basically a black box about fish we really don’t know a lot about that we know fishermen are seeing.”