OLYMPIA - The state's regional salmon enhancement groups want to get their hands on state hatchery surplus salmon to sell the eggs to finance salmon habitat projects, and use the carcasses to return nutrients to salmon- bearing streams.
But it looks like they will have to wait. A bill directing the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to give the state’s 14 nonprofit salmon groups first crack at the surplus hatchery fish turned into a study bill Monday in a state Senate committee.
Several of those testifying on the original Senate Bill 6738, which would revamp the way the state hatchery managers dispose of roughly 750,000 surplus hatchery fish each year, recommended a go-slow approach.
“This bill isn’t ready for prime time,” said Ed Owens, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Coastal Fisheries.
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The state has a five-year contract with American Canadian Fisheries, Inc., a Bellingham-based seafood processing company that picks up the excess fish from some 70 state salmon hatcheries. The competitively bid contract expires in 2011.
Some of the salmon are filleted and donated to food banks. Some are returned to streams or rendered into pet food. The company makes most of its money by selling the eggs it strips from the female salmon carcasses.
The contractor pays the state agency anywhere from 10 cents to $2.50 for each carcass, depending on the quality and sex of the salmon. The money raised is directed to the state regional enhancement groups. Since 2002, it’s ranged from $31,178 to $67,504 a year, according to the state agency.
The state is missing out on an opportunity to generate $2 million to $6 million a year that could help fund the salmon restoration work of the enhancement groups and state hatchery programs, according to a fact sheet prepared by the salmon enhancement groups.
“It’s a terrible waste of money,” said Neil Warner, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.
“The revenue from the eggs and carcasses is not in the millions of dollars a year,” countered Chuck Johnson, spokesman for American Canadian Fisheries and retired state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “It’s far less than that.”
Established in 1971, the company has 25 employees and annual revenue of $2.6 million. After the Senate committee hearing Monday, company president Andy Vitaljic said the state contract for surplus salmon and eggs represented about 30 percent to 40 percent of the company’s business.
Under the existing contract, the Bellingham company donates more than 400,000 pounds of frozen salmon filets to food banks around the state, Johnson said.
“That’s enough for one million meals,” said Josh Fogt, public policy manager for Northwest Harvest. “It’s an incredible source of protein that’s more important now than ever before.”
The regional enhancement groups have a business plan in place to ensure the food banks would continue to receive as much or more in food donations as they do under the current contract, Warner said.
State hatcheries division manager Heather Bartlett said Fish and Wildlife officials are prepared to sit down with all the interested parties to work on a plan that benefits the food banks, the regional enhancement groups and stream health.
“We have concerns with the bill as written,” she said, voicing support for the revised study bill, which would require a report back to the state Legislature by Nov. 1 on how best to deal with surplus hatchery fish.
“This bill looks like it’s going to be a study bill,” predicted Sen. Ken Jacobsen, chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Ocean and Recreation.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444