‘Probably Over A Million Fish’ Lost In Rufus Woods Gas Kill

UPDATE 1:42 P.M., JUNE 3, 2011: Northwest Fishletter has an update on the situation here, including statements from the netpen operator that “lots of wild fish” were dead along the shores of Rufus Woods, as well as data that shows dissolved gas levels were elevated as far downriver as Rock Island Dam below Wenatchee.

Though it’s late in the season, anglers are catching fish at North-central Washington’s Rufus Woods Lake, site of last week’s massive fishkill.

“Right now they’re doing quite well, actually,” says Sheri Sears, Colville Confederated Tribes’ senior policy analyst for fisheries and former fisheries division manager.

Not doing so well: operators of the commercial netpens there. The Columbia River is still flowing too high for divers to get an accurate count, but as many as half of the 2.7 million trout raised for stores and restaurants there may have died, she says.

“Probably over a million fish” were lost, Sears says.

The penned trout were unable to escape the buildup of dissolved gasses caused by huge flows out of Grand Coulee Dam whereas it’s believed that the reservoir’s free-roaming trout and walleye would have been able to dive and escape.

Sears says that some fish have been found along the shores, but says the majority would likely have sunk to the bottom and the gasses would have dissipated from the bodies.

“The fish we pulled up didn’t have any signs so we were unable to confirm signs of death,” she says.

The fishkill may affect the tribes’ ability to stock Rufus Woods. They release 4,000 3- to 4-pounders a month from fall into spring, making for good fishing in some areas of the 50-mile-long reservoir.

“Typically we buy $60,000 worth of triploids from the netpens. This year we probably won’t have those available,” Sears says.

Fortunately, tribal managers foresaw the high flows before they happened and released their redband rainbow broodstock from the pens, she says.

“People are catching fish, some small, 2 pounds, and others 8- to 12-pounds,” angler Ernie Buchanan of Okanogan reported this afternoon.

After a similar fishkill in 1997 occurred, former netpen owner Ed Shallenberger installed devices that allowed him to lower the trout to deeper depths during such events, says Sears, but those apparently were taken out by the new owners.

High dissolved gas levels are likely again in the coming weeks.

“Seventy-five percent of the snowpack is still in the mountains. It’s supposed to be 75 degrees next week. That will cause rapid snowmelt,” Sears says.

She also warns anglers there will be high, rough waters below Chief Joseph Dam on Sunday as engineers test whether the dam can take coming flows.

If there’s any good news for Rufus Woods anglers, it’s that continued high runoff and “entrainment” will flush stocked kokanee and rainbows out of Lake Roosevelt and into it and lower reservoirs.

Sears says the Colvilles are looking forward to meeting with federal dam operators and the state on how to prevent future fishkills, but at the same time allows, “There’s not much we can do about it. The water’s gotta come down.”

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