Representatives of the recreational fishing community expressed frustration at an agreement that ends a lawsuit over the state’s plans to release about 900,000 steelhead smolts in Puget Sound-area rivers.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife reached an agreement on April 25 with the Wild Fish Conservancy that stops litigation against the department over its Puget Sound hatchery programs for 21/2 years and permits the release of hatchery steelhead this spring into the Skykomish River.
In a March 31 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, the Duvall-based nonprofit group claimed the department’s Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Those hatchery fish are impairing the recovery of wild steelhead, salmon, and bull trout, all listed as threatened, the group claimed.
Agency officials admitted the department was vulnerable to litigation because its hatchery steelhead operations had not been approved by National Marine Fisheries Service following the ESA listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007. The department worked with tribal co-managers to revise and update its hatchery genetic management plans for all Puget Sound steelhead hatcheries and resubmitted them to NMFS earlier this year. They are still under review.
The department, however, countered the conservancy’s claiming, saying it has taken numerous steps based on current science to ensure its hatchery operations protect wild steelhead and other listed fish species.
“While I am disappointed the agreement does not allow for the release of more of the early winter hatchery steelhead we have on hand into Puget Sound rivers, I am gratified that we were able to reach agreement to release fish from our Skykomish hatchery in 2014 and support a popular recreational fishery,” said department director Phil Anderson.
“This agreement is a giant win for Puget Sound’s wild steelhead and their recovery,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy.
“There are four major causes for the decline of salmon and steelhead. Loss of habitat is the largest problem facing salmon and steelhead recovery. … Science clearly points to dams, hatcheries, and overharvest as three additional problems that need to be fixed. Applying science-based hatchery practices is something we can do right now that will have immediate and long-term positive benefits. Fisheries all over the world have collapsed because politics, not science, guided their management. Science remains the best and most reliable compass to guide recovery and to meet our solemn stewardship responsibility to future generations.”
“It’s incredible frustration. First because the department didn’t consult with any of the sports groups that might be impacted, nor did they talk to the tribes I think,” said Frank Urabeck, a sport fishing advocate from Bonney Lake. “(The state) basically disarmed themselves. It is terrible. They left us with one fishery. There has been a lot of trust lost over this.
“Where we go from here, who knows. This year is clearly lost. Who knows where we’re going to be a year from now. If the feds don’t have the resources to go through these plans, why would you think we wouldn’t be in the same position next year with another group. This could also go into chinook, and that’s the big money fish.
“It’s one big mess and has been poorly handled by the state and feds.”
“I don’t find 100 percent fault with the department, but I do to a point because they didn’t meet the mandates to get these permits,” said Mike Chamberlain of Ted’s Sports Center in Lynnwood. “But why aren’t (the conservancy) working with the department to get these permits in place? What are they doing that is positive? Why aren’t you working with the department instead of fighting them?
“We in the fishing industry have struggled with the decline in the steelhead fishing. Is it a viable entity for us to maintain stock in that anymore? Probably not. It seems like every year, we face more curtailment. It’s getting to the point where it’s pretty lean financially.
“It isn’t just me as a tackle shop. It’s the manufacturers, it’s the gas stations, the mom-and-pop stores, the cafes, the lodging. It will be interesting to see where we’re at in 10 years.”
“It’s important to remember why we have hatcheries in the first place,” Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said when the suit was first filed. “They were built to make up for lost natural steelhead and salmon production that has been nearly destroyed by habitat loss and damage. They have been an important part of salmon management in Washington for more than 100 years.
“Lost and damaged habitat, not hatcheries or harvest, is what’s driving wild steelhead and salmon populations toward extinction,” Frank said. “The focus needs to be on fixing and protecting habitat, not fighting over hatcheries and the fish they produce.”
THE STEELHEAD MANAGEMENT AGREEMENT
Here are the key elements of the agreement:
• The state Department of Fish and Wildlife may release up to 180,000 hatchery steelhead in 2014 and again in 2015 into the Skykomish River, which flows into the Snohomish River near Monroe.
• The conservancy will not sue the department over its Puget Sound hatchery programs during the next 21/2 years, or until National Marine Fisheries Service approves those programs, whichever comes first.
• The agency will refrain from planting early winter hatchery steelhead into most rivers in the Puget Sound region until NMFS completes its review.
• A 12-year research program will be created on the Skagit River. During the study no early winter steelhead will be released into the Skagit watershed. In cooperation with the conservancy, the department will work with tribes to evaluate and potentially implement a steelhead hatchery program in the Skagit using native steelhead.
• The department may release hatchery steelhead into other rivers around Puget Sound when NMFS approves the department’s hatchery genetic management plans.
• Early winter steelhead from department hatcheries that cannot be released into Puget Sound-area rivers will be released into inland trout lakes that have no connection to the Sound. The department will give the conservancy 14 days’ advance notice of those releases.
• The agency will pay the conservancy $45,000 for litigation expenses.
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640