By Glenn Puit
BEULAH — Wildlife officers suspect vandalism caused the deaths of 5,700 coho salmon at the Platte River Fish Hatchery in Benzie County earlier this month.
Hatchery Manager Edward Eisch said workers found 5,130 adult salmon and 570 small jacks, or yearlings, dead in a maturation pond the morning of Oct. 5. Investigators discovered a club, some heavy-duty fishing line and large treble hooks near the pond at the hatchery on U.S. 31.
Eisch said authorities suspect someone trying to catch a fish from the pond spooked the salmon into blocking a fresh-water source, depriving them of oxygen.
"It was an ugly mess," Eisch said.
The fish hatchery is a critical component of the state's coho salmon stocking program. The Platte hatchery raises both chinook and coho, and is the main egg-taking station for coho salmon in the Upper Great Lakes. It also operates weirs on the lower and upper stretches of the river.
"It could have put our entire coho salmon program in serious jeopardy," Department of Natural Resources' Fish Production Manager Gary Whelan said of the Oct. 5 incident. "The loss of this program would cost the state economy millions of dollars in revenue. We were exceptionally fortunate to have an above-average coho salmon spawning run this year and will still have enough adults to fully meet our coho salmon egg take needs."
In 2004, approximately 600,000 Coho Salmon yearlings died at the facility. That was attributed to equipment failure.
There is no technology that alerts facility managers to overnight problems in the maturation pond, Eisch said. If vandalism is to blame, he added, trying to identify a suspect will be difficult.
"We're hoping they'll run their mouth some night at the bar," Eisch said, adding he believes the Oct. 5 incident happened "not too long after the bars closed" during the early morning hours.
Many of the dead fish carcasses were salvaged by American-Canadian Fisheries Inc., a contractor that supplies surplus salmon carcasses to the fish meal industry.
Anyone with information on the incident is asked to call 1-800-292-7800.