Hook a chinook, go to prison

Catching endangered

Dungeness River chinook salmon isn't just bad for the run's existence, it's against both state and federal law.

"It's not only a state misdemeanor; they get a federal civil penalty because it's an endangered fish," said Dan Witczak, Hurd Creek Hatchery manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"That's like shooting a bald eagle. It's not worth it."

The Dungeness River chinook salmon have been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1999.

Two poachers caught recently on the Dungeness had six pink salmon and two female chinook salmon that carry 5,000 eggs each.

"That's 10 percent of the returning Dungeness River chinook salmon so far. It's also 10,000 smolts (young salmon)," Witczak said.

"So they have been turned over to the National Marine Fisheries Services for federal prosecution under the Endangered Species Act."

In 2001, a Mount Vernon man was caught with a 40-pound chinook illegally taken from the Skagit River. He was fined $5,000 for violating the Endangered Species Act and his 16-foot custom-built fishing boat was seized.

"No, people can't claim ignorance," Witczak said.

"We closed the lower Dungeness River to all summer fishing several years ago - read the regulations."

The river used to be open for summer trout fishing, but too many people used that as an excuse to fish for chinook salmon, he said.

Pink salmon run every other year and a big run brings everyone out, which increases the likelihood of people catching chinook salmon, Witczak said.

The near-drought conditions also are depleting oxygen supplies for the fish and making them easier to catch in the low-running river, he said.

Dungeness River chinook is the second-most endangered stock of Endangered Species Act salmon in Puget Sound, behind that of the South Fork of the Nooksack River.

Witczak helps run a brood stock program to help increase the run's numbers.

The goal is to trap 50 pairs of Dungeness River chinook salmon, collect the eggs, raise them to smolts, then tag and release 50,000 each at two sites on the Greywolf River, the Dungeness hatchery and Hurd Creek from June to mid-September.

"It's an important program for the area," he said.

"We've been working with that run since 1990. We've spent a lot of time, effort and money on that run."

Witczak said enforcement agents on the Dungeness River are finding signs of illegal fishing on a regular basis.

"There's no excuse for it. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is full of pink salmon," he said.

Wildlife officials hope that publicizing the poaching will make anglers more aware of the damage they cause and penalties they face and make people more aware if they see signs of poaching.

"If we save one salmon, it will be worth the effort. Things are looking pretty bleak this year," he said.

Reach Brian Gawley at

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