Fish kill likely intentional

SUQUAMISH, Wash. – A second fish kill at the Gorst fish-rearing facility has caused administrators to re-examine a fish kill that took place this spring and conclude they were likely intentionally caused, resulting in the death of 1.7 million chinook salmon.

The Suquamish Tribe has offered a reward of $1,000 for information on leads as to who might have done this; and a local sportsmen’s group, the Kitsap Poggie Club, has added another $500 to the reward.

Jay Zischke is the tribe’s marine fish program manager. He explained that an incident in May killed the majority of the juvenile chinook salmon being reared at the facility. The fish died of asphyxiation, even though water flows appeared normal when employees arrived that morning. It was thought at the time that perhaps the intake valve had become plugged with leaves then later had cleared itself. There wasn’t much evidence that this might have happened, however, and suspicions were raised. At that time 1.6 million salmon were killed – fish that normally would have been released this year as fingerlings and returned as adults in three or four years.

The second loss occurred in the last week of July, a full two months after the first fish kill. “When we came in that morning, someone had intentionally opened the gate valve and diverted water away from the raceway where these fish were rearing,” Zischke explained. “The sad news is that not only did 100,000 fish die, but it’s fairly clear to those of us who work in the facility that there was some intentional vandalism. There are a lot of valves and you need to know, especially if you’re out there in the dark, which one to turn if you want to affect one raceway or another.

“We’re now quite suspicious it may have been someone intentionally trying to kill these fish at our facility, and maybe the first occurrence was the same sort of thing which we didn’t realize at the time because everything was put back in its place before we got there that morning.

“We lost production for the 2006 release year. We’re not going to have any fish to let go,” Zilschke said. “It means there will be a hole in opportunity for everybody in three or four years when those fish would normally return.”

“It’s disconcerting and we’re hoping that this reward for information might turn up something and give us a lead,” Zilschke commented. “No one has threatened us in the past and we’ve operated the facility a long time. We’re scratching our head on why or who, and really don’t have any leads at this point.”

Suspicions about the first fish kill led to developing an alarm system that would alert them if water flows or oxygen levels became low. Plans for that system are now in the final stages. “Those issues can be monitored by electronic indicators,” Zilschke explained. “It’s sort of a remote site, and no one lives there, but this could let people know so that they can zip down and check on the facility. We’re probably now going to add other security measures specifically focused on trying to deter people from doing what appears to have happened recently.

“The biggest feeling for me is that it’s really disheartening. The people out there rearing fish get pretty attached to that stuff. They want to produce healthy fish and release good-looking fish. When someone does this, it just really kind of rips your guts out.”

The Gorst facility is a cooperative fish-rearing location on land owned by the city of Bremerton. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife invested a substantial amount of money into the infrastructure. The Suquamish Tribe operates it in conjunction with the state, with the tribe providing all the manpower at the site. Volunteers from the Poggie Club are also involved. “It’s kind of a nice blend of state, tribal, and a non-Native recreational group working together to rear fish that everyone gets a shot at,” Zischke commented.