Fungus-contaminated steelhead discovered by squirrel hunter

Vern Baker of Joseph did not know that this pile of 75 steelhead he happened upon last week was discarded because they were contaminated with a fungus. Photo by Rocky Wilson

When squirrel hunter Vern Baker of Joseph came upon the carcasses of approximately 75 steelhead near the Wallowa County asphalt plant five miles north of Enterprise last Wednesday, he was incensed. He thought of the many deserving individuals who could have benefitted from the wanton waste and demanded an explanation.

The explanation is that the batch of fish dumped in a pit on Oregon Department of Transportation property, the same pit where road kill deer carcasses are dumped, was determined by personnel at the state of Oregon's Wallowa Fish Hatchery to be infected by a fungus and not fit to be eaten. Many hundreds of the spawned steelhead, however, have been determined to be edible and shared with a variety of outlets.

This is not the first year that spawned fish from the hatchery have been distributed for food. Major recipients in the past have been the La Grande food bank and the La Grande Salvation Army. New recipients this year, with the peak run to come this week or next week, are Community Connection in Enterprise, the Elgin food bank and a Bellingham, Wash., firm known as American Canadian. Community Connection received 58 fish, the Elgin food bank about 150 fish and American Canadian about 1,000 spawned steelhead. The latter is processing the fish and providing them without charge to the Oregon Food Bank in Portland as a public service, according to Greg Davis of the Wallowa Fish Hatchery, .

Community Connection has cleaned and frozen its fish and plans to serve steelhead at senior citizen mealsites in Enterprise and Wallowa on Good Friday, April 18. Community Connection director Carolyn Pfeaster, who was delighted with the gift, said that there might be enough fish to make two meals.

Last year, a banner year, 9,380 of the steelhead were harvested for eggs at the Wallowa Fish Hatchery, Big Canyon Hatchery and Little Sheep Hatchery.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist Brad Smith says the fish have had a tough go of it since leaving the ocean almost one year ago. He said the steelhead which reach the hatchery functionally quit feeding in fresh water and have a very low fat content in their bodies. He says the fish have white or light pink flesh. He said that steelhead are returning to the hatcheries in worse condition than in past years because of the early spring and higher water temperatures.

Wallowa County Public Works Director Russ McMartin says the dumped fish near the asphalt plant will be buried this week.

Smith said that a certain percentage of the steelhead run have abrasions on their bodies which are contaminated with a fungus. Those are the ones which are not fit for human consumption and are sorted out.

Bob Jones from the Wallowa Fish Hatchery said the contaminated fish were discarded in the county landfill in the past and were again dumped there at the end of last week. The fish discovered by Baker had been discarded one week before he found them.

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