Catching fish to save fish seems backwards, but it’s been an effective program for over a quarter-century.
The Northern Pikeminnow Sport Reward Program is as successful as ever in its 27th year. The system is simple: If an angler catches pikeminnow, he or she can turn their fish into one of 19 selected stations along the Columbia River for a cash prize. The program runs through August 31st.
Why is money being offered for a fish that is widely considered to be worthless? Pikeminnow eat juvenile salmon and steelheads, both considered endangered species, according to Eric Winther from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Of all the baby salmon eaten by fish, just under 80 percent are eaten by pikeminnow,” Winther said. “There are other predators, but pikeminnow are the No. 1 threat.”
Winther said the rewards program has removed around 167,000 pikeminnow from the Columbia each year, and predation of smolts has been reduced by 40 percent since the program started in 1990.
The program is a joint effort between four different groups: Washington’s fish and wildlife department sets up the turn-in stations, Oregon Fish and Wildlife tags select pikeminnow to keep tabs on their population, Bonneville Power Administration funds the payouts and research, and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission administers the overall program and handles the payouts to fishermen, according to PSMFC spokesman Steve Williams.
Williams said the program has been a substantial success in keeping the salmon population viable.
“We’ve had tremendous success catching pikeminnow and meeting the objective of the program, which is to catch 10-20 percent of fish on a yearly basis,” he said. “If we do that, we can reduce pikeminnow. That’s a big deal, a lot of salmon will be saved as a result.”
In 2016 alone, the program reported that 225,350 fish were caught, and each station received about eight fish per day
The program pays for any pikeminnow that is 9 inches or longer. For the first 25 fish caught, the angler will receive $5 per fish. After that, he or she will earn $6 per fish, then $8 per fish after catching 200 fish total. Any pikeminnow with a special tag is worth $500.
As one might guess, certain anglers have taken advantage of the program to make some serious cash.
The program reported that in 2016, 13 different individuals earned over $25,000 simply from catching pikeminnow. The top angler earned a whopping $119,341 over the season by catching over 14,000 fish including 12 tagged pikeminnow.
However, the program refuses to release the names of the successful fishers, and according to Williams, that’s how it’s always been.
“Fishermen don’t want to give away names, since it’s dealing with money and incomes,” he said. “This has been set in place a long time ago. Those guys are pretty private about how they do things. They don’t like interviews.”
Not all participants are in the program for the money. Rainier resident Franklin Simmons said he’s fished pikeminnow in exchange for cash every year, and made $500 in his best year, 2015.
Simmons explained he fishes for pikeminnow for the fun of the sport rather than the cash prize, although the extra money is nice.
“I like to fish, period,” he said. “My philosophy is, if it helps pay for gas and launch fees, it’s a good day. I enjoy being out on the river, and to me, that’s where my solitude and my peace comes from. It’s nice to be away from phones.”
Winther is confident that the pikeminnow program will continue to be successful for years to come.
“The best fishing is still ahead of us,” he said.
“I like to fish, period. My philosophy is, if it helps pay for gas and launch fees, it’s a good day. I enjoy being out on the river, and to me, that’s where my solitude and my peace comes from. It’s nice to be away from phones.” — Franklin Simmons, Rainier
“I like to fish, period. My philosophy is, if it helps pay for gas and launch fees, it’s a good day. I enjoy being out on the river, and to me, that’s where my solitude and my peace comes from. It's nice to be away from phones."
— Franklin Simmons
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