Friday, April 13, 2007

ANNUAL FISH DELIVERY: Oak Orchard River welcomes 85,250 chinook salmon and 14,000 steelhead

POINT BREEZE — The rivers and tributaries that salmon swim are imprinted in their memory like a lifeline to the place they were born.

Nearly 100,000 chinook salmon and steelhead were delivered to Lake Breeze Marina in Point Breeze on Tuesday where they will live in pens along the bank of Oak Orchard River for the next few weeks while smolting and getting familiar with their new surroundings, according to Bob Songin, Reel Excitement charter boat captain.

“They go back to the river they were born in,” he said. “When they’re born in a fishery, they have to go through an imprinting process.”

Imprinting is much like a map showing them the way back to the Oak Orchard River and its tributaries, which are known for their world-class fishing. Once the process is complete, the fish are released into the river and find their way downstream to Lake Ontario with the ability to return to the river habitat to spawn.

While waiting for the delivery from the Salmon River Fish Hatchery, a state-run facility in Oswego County, the fishermen in Orleans County prepared the new homes for the fish, said Dave Olsowsky, a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries technician.

“They’ll pen raise the chinooks and the steelhead and when they get to a certain size they’ll release them,” he said.

The fish were transported in holding tanks by the DEC from the hatchery to the marina. When the trucks arrived, the tanks were hooked up to a series of tubes acting as a waterslide for the fish on their way to the pens.

The local marina got involved with pen raising fish 10 years ago and each year Songin and several other people get together in February to discuss the release and the amount of fish needed for the restocking, Songin said. The 85,250 chinook salmon and 14,000 steelhead delivered this year will remain in underwater cages until after they go through the smolting stage, which takes between 20 and 24 days, he said.

“The reason we do it is to improve survivability of the fish and enhance the imprinting process,” Songin said.

Though the salmon are still young, indicated by black vertical lines marking the length of their bodies, as they grow they’ll turn silver, pointing to the end of the smolting process when they are ready to be released into the wild, Songin said.

The fingerlings are only about three inches long, but as the lake temperature rises from the frigid 42 degrees that it is currently stands at, their length will grow along with their changing colors, he said.

“The warmer the water is the faster they’ll grow,” Songin said.

After the fish grow and are released into the stream they will make their way to the lake and swim back to the river in the fall to breed, increasing the salmon and steelhead population in local tributaries.

“Hopefully they’ll come back to Oak Orchard to spawn,” Olsowsky said.

Contact reporter Miranda Vagg at (585) 798-1400, ext. 2225.