08/15/2016 – John Snyder- NWFN
OLYMPIA –The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) today designated the Nisqually and Elwha rivers as wild steelhead gene banks to help conserve wild steelhead populations.
Under that designation, both rivers will be off-limits to releases of steelhead raised in state hatcheries, which can pose risks to native fish through interbreeding and competition for spawning areas. Fishing will be allowed if wild steelhead runs to those rivers are strong enough to allow it.
Both rivers meet the criteria for gene banks established in the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan to help reverse the long-term decline of wild steelhead returning to rivers in Washington state, said Jim Scott, a special assistant to the WDFW director.
“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.”
WDFW presented both rivers as possible options for wild steelhead gene banks during a series of public meetings and an online comment period during the summer of 2015.
Other options included the Skagit and Sauk rivers, but WDFW delayed designating a wild steelhead gene bank in northern Puget Sound pending further review. The department expects to make that decision after consultation with a new advisory group and area treaty tribes, Scott said.
Under a 2014 court settlement, WDFW agreed to stop releasing early winter hatchery steelhead in the Skagit River through 2025. Scott noted, however, that WDFW is considering a proposal to release steelhead raised from local stock at the department’s Marblemount Hatchery.
“Most public comments received by the department support the designation of the entire Skagit River as a gene bank, but some are concerned about the potential impact on fisheries and the local economy,” Scott said. “We are committed to establishing at least one wild steelhead gene bank in North Cascades region, but plan to convene an advisory group to discuss the options in greater detail before proceeding.”
None of the sites WDFW proposed as wild steelhead gene banks in the Puget Sound area drew more public support than the Elwha River on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula. While still recovering from the removal of two large hydroelectric dams in 2012, the river now has more than 40 miles of additional spawning and rearing habitat, much of it inside Olympic National Park.
In addition, studies have found that the river’s native winter steelhead population remains genetically distinct, despite releases of early winter hatchery fish conducted until 2011. An interim 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 achieved.
The Nisqually River, which flows into southern Puget Sound, was also a strong candidate for a wild steelhead gene bank – in part because of the ongoing efforts by the Nisqually River Council to protect and restore fish habitat on the river, Scott said. 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.
With the addition of the Nisqually and Elwha rivers, WDFW has now designated 14 wild steelhead gene banks in watersheds around the state.