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Steelhead trout are the focus of a new strategy that would offer new fishing opportunities with increased hatchery production. // Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

New steelhead strategy would include increased fishing and more hatcheries

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Strategies to keep steelhead fishing alive while restoring steelhead populations to rivers in Puget Sound are spelled out in the “Quicksilver Portfolio” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document unveiled today before the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

After three years of study, the Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group announced that it was ready to solicit public and political support for an experimental approach that includes monitoring the effects of fishing and increased hatchery production as part of a steelhead-recovery effort.

“Together, we can conserve wild steelhead, restore fishing opportunities, provide economic benefits to our communities and create a future in which the rich tradition of steelhead fishing is continued and passed on to future generations,” states a memo from the group (pdf 127 kb), consisting mostly of steelhead anglers.

Some of the major ideas include:

  • Maintaining the catch-and-release sport fishery on the Skagit River in North Puget Sound and adding C-and-R fisheries on the Samish River in North Puget Sound and the Elwha in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
  • Building broodstock hatcheries to boost populations of wild steelhead in the Nooksack River to the north and the Cedar River in Central Puget Sound, while maintaining the newly constructed steelhead hatchery on the North Fork of the Skokomish River.
  • Operating “segregated” hatcheries to boost independent winter steelhead populations, which can be harvested in catch-and-keep fisheries, on the Snohomish (north), Dungeness (Strait of Juan de Fuca) and Quilcene (Hood Canal).

Andy Marks, a member of the advisory group, said it might seem problematic that those who want to fish for steelhead are the ones leading the way to save them. But there is nobody more passionate about steelhead than a steelheader, he said. Furthermore, steelhead are not harvested commercially under state law, he noted.

A juvenile steelhead trout // Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

It is important, Andy said, that his children and grandchildren be able to fish for steelhead, or at least to know them. “My biggest fear,” he added, “is that one of my grandkids will climb up on my lap and ask me what a steelhead was. That is a very real possibility.”

In 2007, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service listed Puget Sound’s population of steelhead trout — the official state fish of Washington — as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“At one time, rivers, streams, and estuaries along the shores of Puget Sound teemed each year with steelhead returning from the Pacific Ocean to their natal spawning grounds,” states the “ESA Recovery Plan for Puget Sound Steelhead,” which was issued by NMFS in December. “These runs played an integral role in the lives of Indian tribes that lived in the region, as well as for many of the people who settled in the area.”

In recent years, the steelhead population has declined to about 6 percent of its historical size, and nothing done so far has reversed the downward trend toward extinction.

The causes of decline are identified as all manner of human activities: culverts under roads, dams, agricultural practices, development, timber management, water supplies (and altered streamflows), hatchery effects, over-harvest and climate change.

Strategies outlined in the federal recovery plan address each of the major problems outlined, yet hatchery production is not mentioned as a solution. On the other hand, the 2008 Statewide Steelhead Management Plan does incorporate hatchery operations as a recovery strategy — provided that hatcheries are operated from an “ecosystem perspective” with careful monitoring to measure the outcome.

Andy Marks said the committee covered all relevant issues, from scientific to regulatory. “I know more about steelhead genetics that I ever wanted to know in my life,” he said. Members believe that that their “QuickSilver Portfolio” does not conflict with the federal steelhead recovery plan nor any other official plan dealing with steelhead.

Essential to the effort is scientifically credible monitoring to ensure that the effort is helping and not hurting the steelhead population, he stressed. Volunteers can be expected to assist state biologists in the effort, and the work can get started with few changes to the budget for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages steelhead.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jim Anderson of Buckley in Pierce County observed that today’s presentation by the group included nothing about Puget Sound tribes, which are legally “co-managers” of the salmon and steelhead resource.

Marks responded that the strategies will be reviewed by the congressionally established Hatchery Scientific Review Group, of which the tribes are a part. Also, projects for specific streams must be approved by tribes in that area. Since the strategies are designed to be compliant with existing approved plans, he expects minimal conflict as each idea undergoes further scrutiny from scientists, policymakers, budget officials and the Legislature.

Commissioner David Graybill of Leavenworth said he would like to move forward on the proposal.

“We are looking for you, the creators of this document, to recommend a pathway forward,” he said. “I’m very eager to see some guidance on where we can start as a result of the hard work you have done.”

The Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed to further discussions about how to engage the broader public and other interests in the plan. Left hanging is the question of whether the steelhead proposal requires a motion of support from the commission, a change in policy by the department, or some other action.

Meanwhile, one member of the Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group does not agree with the concept as presented to the commission and is writing a “minority report” to argue against the plan. I will link to that report here when it becomes available.

Jamie Glasgow of Wild Fish Conservancy said the state needs to fulfill its earlier commitments of properly managing existing hatcheries before embarking on a new hatchery program. So far, a lack of funding has kept state biologists from collecting the data needed to show whether existing hatchery and fishery programs are complying with established objectives.

“Now is not the time to experiment with hatcheries to increase fishing pressure,” Jamie told me in an email. “The state’s ongoing shortcomings on understanding and managing hatchery impacts on wild fish recovery are also evident in the review of hatchery reform science (a document issued in January of this year).”

Jamie, whose organization has sued the state over steelhead hatchery operations, detailed his concerns in a letter to fellow members of the Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group before the report was completed. His letter concluded, “As an advisor, my advice is, let’s get it right with the steelhead hatcheries we’ve got before adding more… I believe that when more recreational fishers are reliant on the health of wild steelhead populations to provide the privilege of angling, WDFW will then be more motivated to find the will and the resources to more fully benefit wild steelhead recovery for sustainable fisheries.”

The text was changed from its previous version to recognize that segregated hatcheries allow anglers to take home their catch.

6 comments

  1. Phil Fravel says:

    I would prefer to see a bump in hatchery production in areas with hi density population. Like the Green, Cedar, Puyallup. And leave rivers away from populated areas stay with wild fish. This would concentrate harvest opportunities in areas with your average fisherman. And still allow hard core fisherman to travel to catch and release rivers.

  2. John Brewer says:

    Story has ERROR that needs to be fixed. Should be CATCH-AND-KEEP instead of catch-and-release in this sentence: “Operating “segregated” hatcheries to boost independent winter steelhead populations, which can be harvested in catch-and-release fisheries, on the Snohomish (north), Dungeness (Strait of Juan de Fuca) and Quilcene (Hood Canal)”

    See the study to confirm.

    • Please consider opening up the green river for steelhead. You already have a wonderful hatchery and Palmer. Think about coming up with a solution having a steelhead fisherman help pay to get that hatchery up and running again. This could work! Signed a steelhead fisherman

  3. DARRYL SANFORD says:

    Your “Causes of decline” ignore predators which, behind nylon nets, just might be the biggest cause of steelhead declines. With ten times as many seals and sea lions in the Salish Sea as there were in 1972, along with huge populations of mergansers, cormerants, bull trout, searun cutthroat, otters, gulls, terns, etc predators must be dealt with to stand any chance of reversing the steelhead declines.

    • Christopher Dunagan says:

      Thank you for the comment. As I understand the plan, predators are not listed as a cause of decline, but actions to address predation are listed as a strategies to reduce early marine mortality. They include:

      1. Continue predation research and monitoring, with a focus on areas of greatest steelhead early marine mortality.

      2. Assess and test the effectiveness of specific actions to alter harbor seal behavior at locations associated with high steelhead mortality. Thoroughly assess whether predator distribution will be adequately altered and evaluate unexpected consequences.

      3. Implement regional actions to allow for testing the effectiveness of site-specific marine mammal management in support of steelhead recovery.

      4. Support efforts to recover or enhance the abundance of forage fish as buffer prey.

      5. Support efforts to recover or enhance the abundance of other prey historically important to harbor seals and other predators of concern (e.g., hake, cod, and rockfish).

      6. Address high steelhead mortality at the Hood Canal Bridge through structural modifications or through management approaches to facilitate steelhead passage or alter predator behavior during the steelhead outmigration period.

      7. Determine if hatchery fish act as a predator attractant and/or buffer prey, or both, in relation to steelhead early marine survival.

      The plan also includes this statement: “Research suggests that unprecedented steelhead smolt emigration mortality, likely from predation by seals, occurs in the Salish Sea (Moore et al. 2015). Berejikian et al. (2016) suggest that harbor seals contribute to predation of steelhead in Puget Sound and in major river deltas (See Appendix 3).”

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