Outdoors

Nisqually, Elwha rivers selected to aid wild steelhead recovery

Efforts to improve and protect habitat along the Nisqually River has lead to improved conditions for salmon fingerlings such as these, as well as steelhead. Those efforts are a major reason the river has been designated a wild steelhead gene bank, which will prevent future stocking of hatchery steelhead.
Efforts to improve and protect habitat along the Nisqually River has lead to improved conditions for salmon fingerlings such as these, as well as steelhead. Those efforts are a major reason the river has been designated a wild steelhead gene bank, which will prevent future stocking of hatchery steelhead. Staff file, 2008

The Nisqually and Elwha rivers were designated Monday as wild steelhead gene banks to help conserve wild steelhead populations.

Both rivers will now be off-limits to releases of steelhead raised at state hatcheries, which can pose risks to native fish through interbreeding and competition for spawning areas.

Winter steelhead fishing in the Nisqually will not be allowed if the wild steelhead run is not strong enough to allow it. Current rules on the Nisqually allow fishing for hatchery steelhead from July 1-Sept. 30.

“We will not change this rule this year as a result of the (gene bank) designation, and I do not anticipate that we will change it in the future,” said Jim Scott, a special assistant to the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Since there are currently no releases of hatchery steelhead (summer or winter) in the Nisqually River, any steelhead that are caught would have originated from another river.

The Elwha is currently closed to fishing following the removal of two dams in 2012.

The Nisqually and Elwha meet the criteria for gene banks established in the statewide steelhead management plan developed by the department to help reverse the long-term decline of wild steelhead returning to Washington rivers.

The Nisqually, which flows from Mount Rainier to southern Puget Sound, was a strong candidate in part because of the ongoing efforts by the Nisqually River Council to protect and restore fish habitat on the river, Scott said.

In addition, no hatchery-origin winter steelhead have been released into the watershed since 1982, and the number of wild steelhead spawning in the river increased to more than 1,000 fish in 2015 and more than 2,000 in 2016.

During public comment periods in 2015, the Elwha drew the most support as a wild steelhead gene bank. While still recovering from the removal of two dams in 2012, the river now has more than 40 miles of additional spawning and rearing habitat, much of it inside Olympic National Park. Just months after the dam removal was complete, steelhead were already spawning in two tributaries that had been inaccessible for more than 100 years.

Studies also have found the river’s native winter steelhead population remains genetically distinct, despite releases of early winter hatchery fish conducted until 2011. An hatchery program currently operated by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to restore the river’s steelhead population is scheduled to end once river conditions improve and restoration objectives for wild steelhead are reached, according to the release.

Department staff also considered the Skagit and Sauk rivers, but delayed designating a gene bank in the North Sound pending further review.

With Monday’s designation of the Nisqually and Elwha rivers, the agency has now designated 14 wild steelhead gene banks.

“The Nisqually and Elwha rivers can play a major role in the recovery of wild steelhead populations in the Puget Sound area,” Scott said. “This new designation, along with other conservation efforts already underway, will help us reach that goal.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

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