03/16/2016 – John Snyder – NWFN
OLYMPIA – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will no longer release hatchery-reared steelhead in the Grays River to help preserve the wild steelhead population near the mouth of the Columbia River.
The Chinook River, which flows into the Columbia 15 miles farther downstream, will also be off-limits to the release of hatchery steelhead now that WDFW has designated the Grays/Chinook wild steelhead population the state’s newest wild fish gene bank.
That designation, announced today, is part of a statewide policy to protect self-sustaining populations of wild steelhead by reducing the risk to them posed by hatchery fish, said Cindy Le Fleur, WDFW regional fish manager.
“This is the last of four gene banks currently planned for wild steelhead in the lower Columbia River Basin,” Le Fleur said. “The department remains committed to producing hatchery fish for harvest, but we also need to protect wild steelhead against interbreeding, disease, and competition from hatchery fish.”
Since 2014, the department has also established wild steelhead gene banks on the East Fork Lewis River, the North Fork Toutle/Green River, and the Wind River.
WDFW first identified wild steelhead gene banks as a recovery strategy in the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, adopted by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2008.
Le Fleur said WDFW’s final decision to site a gene bank near the mouth of the Columbia River came down to a choice between the Grays/Chinook rivers, or an area including Mill, Abernathy and Germany creeks.
In 2015, a 16-member citizen work group advised against siting a gene bank on the Elochoman and Skamokawa rivers, but did not reach a consensus on a final option. However, about 85 percent of the comments later received from the public supported the Grays/Chinook option, Le Fleur said.
“Those rivers have a number of advantages over the three streams, including a higher abundance of wild steelhead and more spawning habitat,” she said.
In recent years, WDFW has raised an average of 140,000 winter steelhead smolts at the Grays River Hatchery from broodstock collected at Beaver Creek on the Elochoman River. About 40,000 of those smolts were released into the Grays River, while the rest were transported to the Elochoman and Coweeman rivers for release.
This year, however, the number of steelhead smolts raised at the Grays River Hatchery was severely reduced by the effects of last summer’s drought. Le Fleur said 130,000 juvenile steelhead died last July as a result of high water temperatures, low water levels and Ichthyophthirus, the deadly fish disease known as “ich.”
In mid-March, the 10,000 smolts that survived will be transported to the Elochoman River, where they will be acclimated then released in mid-April, Le Fleur said.
“Survival rates at some other hatcheries in the region were actually higher than expected, which help to offset the losses at Grays River,” she said. “Even so, total production for the area is about 80 percent of the goal, and we plan to reduce our releases by an average of 20 percent at six sites this spring.”
Those sites include the Washougal, Elochoman, Coweeman and Kalama rivers, as well as Salmon Creek and Rock Creek.
Despite the gene bank designation, hatchery managers plan to continue producing 140,000 winter steelhead smolts per year at the Grays River Hatchery or at the Beaver Creek facility. WDFW will also continue to produce coho and chum salmon at Grays River.