A founding industry in Gig Harbor, fishing has remained active in the commercial fishing fleet that continues to operate out of the city.
Though salmon are not the only fish these fishermen target, this fish has served an essential role in the community and to the native tribes who lived in the area when the first Gig Harbor settlers arrived.
The influence of the fishing industry and salmon remains present in Gig Harbor today, with the annual Chum Festival marking the end of the city’s summer season and Donkey Creek Park serving as a centerpiece for education on the chum salmon who call those waters home.
The continued presence of chum salmon in Donkey Creek is due to a 40-year volunteer effort from some of Gig Harbor’s dedicated citizens and fishermen, lead by Tom Lovrovich, a third generation commercial fisherman who started volunteering with the project at age 11.
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“I like to just put more fish in the population,” Tom Lovrovich said.
Helping to educate the Gig Harbor community about the role of the chum salmon is his wife, Rahna, a Gig Harbor City Council member.
Because of the IHN it put us into kind of a quarantine mode for everything...even though those chum that we tested were negative. Those fish are going out the same numbers and are going out there, unfortunately not from Donkey Creek, but the same numbers will be out there.
Deidre Bissonnette, manager of Minter Creek Hatchery
Tom leads a team of volunteers to run a remote incubation site out of Donkey Creek, where annually one million salmon eggs are hatched, grown and released into the creek to swim out into Puget Sound and then return in four years to complete their life cycle.
However, Gig Harbor will not be receiving its annual quota of salmon eggs this year due to the presence of a virus found in the spring and fall chinook salmon during routine testing by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The virus — which only affects finfish such as salmon, and poses no threat to human health — is infectious haematopoietic necrosis (IHN) and causes the death of those fish infected with the virus.
“It’s a strange disease,” Tom said. “This happened back in the 90s before … and it happened again in 2009 or 2010.”
Because IHN was found in chinook salmon — though chum salmon were not tested — the salmon eggs will remain at the Minter Creek Hatchery to be incubated under fresh water to control the spread of the virus from entering other waterways, hatchery manager Deidre Bissonnette said.
It’s better than nothing. They’re in Puget Sound, they just won’t be back in Donkey Creek.
Rahna Lovrovich, Gig Harbor City Council member
“Because of the IHN, it put us into kind of a quarantine mode for everything ... even though those chum that we tested were negative,” she explained. “Those fish are going out the same numbers and are going out there, unfortunately not from Donkey Creek, but the same numbers will be out there.”
Since there will be no chum salmon released from the remote incubation site at Donkey Creek — or the secondary location at Purdy Creek — it is unlikely that many chum salmon will be seen returning in 2020, following the fish’s typical four-year life cycle.
“It’s better than nothing,” Rahna said of the salmon eggs remaining at the hatchery. “They’re in Puget Sound, they just won’t be back in Donkey Creek.”
A concern that remains is that the role the chum salmon play in the local ecosystem — serving as fertilizer and food for other native species — could throw off the natural balance.
“If you take the salmon out of that equation … then it ends up affecting the whole thing,” Rahna explained.
I’m hoping this is only a one year thing...This IHN has never popped up two years in a row. If we don’t have eggs it’s kind of hard to have fish come back. I definitely don’t want to miss them for two years or three years.
Tom Lovrovich, commercial fishermen and volunteer lead at Donkey Creek remote incubation site
While IHN occurs naturally and wild fish are seen to have an immunity to the virus, those fish raised in a hatchery setting do not have an immunity and possess a greater risk of contracting the virus.
This is one of the reasons why protocols, set by the WDFW, are so strict when IHN is discovered, Bissonnette said.
“It’s critical that we don’t transmit any eggs that might potentially have (IHN) to a watershed that doesn’t already have it,” she said. “The potential that’s out there is testing. The issue that we run into is the high cost of testing. That’s going to be hurdle.”
WDFW protocol following IHN detection states that in order for anything to leave the watershed, the adult fish must test negative for the virus and the eggs be incubated on well water free of the pathogen. The policy is likely to remain in effect for the next three years.
However, Tom is determined to have chum salmon eggs return to Donkey Creek next year.
I think it gives Gig Harbor a sense of community. It’s part of our heritage. It’s about community. It’s been a focal point for a Chum Festival, for our waterfront walking tours (and) for Harbor WildWatch. All of these things have come together around that. It brings the community together.
“I’m hoping this is only a one-year thing ...This IHN has never popped up two years in a row,” he said. “If we don’t have eggs it’s kind of hard to have fish come back. I definitely don’t want to miss them for two years or three years.”
The role of salmon in the region and the Gig Harbor community is an important part of the city’s history that Rahna looks to highlight, both in educational programming and in the annual Chum Festival.
“I think it gives Gig Harbor a sense of community. It’s part of our heritage,” she said. “It’s about community. It’s been a focal point for a Chum Festival, for our waterfront walking tours (and) for Harbor WildWatch. All of these things have come together around that. It brings the community together.”