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The future of Skagit river steelhead is uncertain



The future of Skagit River steelhead is at a crossroads.


In the year since the Marblemount Fish Hatchery’s steelhead program was shut down because of a lawsuit, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife has been weighing options for steelhead management.

The agency is considering two options: designating the Skagit River as a wild steelhead gene bank or re-establishing a hatchery program using wild fish.

The Wild Fish Conservancy, which filed the lawsuit in March 2014, is lobbying for the gene bank.

Gene banks, also known as wild fish management zones, allow wild fish populations to recover without interference from hatchery fish.

If the Skagit River becomes a steelhead gene bank, no steelhead hatchery would be allowed to operate on the river until the wild species recovers enough to be removed from the endangered species list, Fish & Wildlife Intergovernmental Salmon and Steelhead Manager John Long said.

That option is a contentious one.

Conservation groups are excited about the possibility of a gene bank, as Puget Sound steelhead have been considered threatened since 2007. But local fishermen worry that a gene bank — and indefinite hatchery closure — could keep them from fishing for steelhead for years until the species recovers.

Fish & Wildlife initially expected to decide which Puget Sound rivers to designate as gene banks by the end of this year, but staff are still reviewing hundreds of public comments received over the summer, fisheries planner Kirt Hughes said.

Gene banking the Skagit

Conservation groups believe gene banking is necessary to restore wild steelhead.

The organization’s lawsuit against Fish & Wildlife argued that Puget Sound steelhead hatcheries, including the one on the Skagit River, violated the Endangered Species Act because it used fish brought in from south Puget Sound.

Research suggests fish from other regions can compete with wild fish for habitat and food, as well as cause genetic changes after spawning with them.

In response to the lawsuit, Fish & Wildlife agreed not to release the steelhead from outside the region into the Skagit River for 12 years and closed the steelhead program at Marblemount.

If Fish & Wildlife chooses to gene bank the Skagit River, that could extend the hatchery closure beyond the 12 years.

Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee said he thinks gene banking the river is a better option than opening a wild steelhead program at the Marblemount hatchery.

“It’s one of our healthiest wild steelhead populations with some of the healthiest, most abundant steelhead habitat, and those are the things you look at when you choose which places to save,” he said.

Wild Steelheaders United, an offshoot of Trout Unlimited that aims to improve habitat and boost wild fish numbers, also supports the idea.

“Let’s get a long-scale research project going so that we can quiet some of the dissension between people … so all groups can have a clear understanding of what is going to be necessary to recover steelhead,” said Wild Steelheaders United Science Director John McMillan.

McMillan and NOAA West Coast Region fisheries manager Rob Jones said it would be ideal to have a gene bank on the Skagit River while continuing to operate hatchery programs elsewhere in Puget Sound. That would give insight into which option works best.

“We think the Skagit represents the best place for a gene bank for a couple of reasons … Habitat is good, there’s been a lot of money spent on recovery and the wild population is doing as good as it has been in 20 years,” McMillan said. “It represents our best chance to get things right with wild fish.”

Lost opportunity

While the state considers its options, the pickings are slim for recreational and tribal fishermen.

Because the Marblemount hatchery has not released steelhead since the lawsuit, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe is expecting about 300 hatchery steelhead to return this winter among thousands of coho and chum salmon, both of which are also listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

To avoid inadvertently netting salmon, the tribe has decided for the first time not to open its steelhead season, tribal natural resources director Scott Schuyler said.

With fewer — if any — steelhead expected to return next year, tribal members aren’t sure when they’ll get to fish for steelhead again.

“The effects on our Upper Skagit winter steelhead fishery was big to many families. It provided them not only a source of income, but also a connection to our culture that we don’t have the opportunity to provide them at this time,” Schuyler said.

Fish & Wildlife Commission member Larry Carpenter said he is disappointed with the closure of the steelhead hatchery program and said he does not support gene banking the Skagit River.

A black and white photograph of his grandfather repairing a net on the Skagit River in May 1932 hangs in his office in Mount Vernon. Several generations of Carpenter’s family have fished the Skagit River, and he said the long-term loss of the hatchery program would mean fewer fishing opportunities.

“I think we need to look under every rock to see what we can do for these fish and so people can have some fishing opportunity,” Carpenter said.

Longtime fisherman Bill Reinard of Burlington is also opposed to gene banking the Skagit River. He is urging local officials to take a stand on the issue.

“This is too important of an issue to let pass,” he said during a Concrete Town Council meeting in November.

Concrete will consider at its next meeting, Dec. 14, passing an ordinance stating town officials do not support designating the Skagit River as a wild steelhead gene bank.

Fish & Wildlife’s recreational steelhead season remained open as of Wednesday. Up to two hatchery fish per day can be kept from parts of the Skagit, Sauk and Cascade rivers in the Skagit watershed until the end of the season Jan. 31.

There’s no guarantee the return of wild steelhead will be strong enough to allow for a fishing season next year.

Seeking a balance

Concerned fishermen are floating ideas of how to balance wild fish recovery with fishing opportunities.

Some would prefer to see a gene bank on the Sauk River, where there are no hatchery programs that would be affected. Some want to see a steelhead hatchery program reopened on the Skagit River using wild fish.

Fish & Wildlife is considering both of those options, Hughes said.

State and federal fisheries managers acknowledge that while hatcheries can increase the number of fish, hatchery-raised fish can also pose risks to wild populations.

“They don’t act like and they don’t survive like wild fish do,” NOAA’s Jones said. “You’re putting the wrong fish in the stream, and that poses a risk to wild fish.”

Carpenter said tribal and recreational fishermen tend to agree that while there is room for improvement at hatcheries, the hatcheries play an important role in sustaining the state’s fisheries.

“If we have enough fish everybody’s happy. If you don’t have enough fish you’re going to have fighting,” he said. “The recreational folks want to fish, the tribes have treaty rights to take some fish, and we’ve got to have fish in the system.”

According to Fish & Wildlife, 78 percent of steelhead caught in the Skagit River are hatchery raised.

Some suggest fisheries managers may not have to choose between conservation and recreation.

“The question is: How are you going to operate hatcheries differently to either improve their fitness, reduce the impacts on wild fish, or both of those things?” McMillan said, adding more research is needed.

Making progress

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is reviewing genetic management plans for the state’s Puget Sound hatcheries.

The conservancy’s lawsuit said that an approved plan was not in place at the time of the suit.

Corey Ruiz of the Coastal Conservation Association North Sound Chapter, which represents Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, said he is worried other hatchery programs are vulnerable to lawsuits that could shut them down.

“When you don’t have (a hatchery genetic management plan) in place, it’s like driving without a license. That certification, because the fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act, is like a license to raise hatchery fish,” said Ruiz, a fisherman who lives in Concrete. “We want to see NOAA get them done so that we are no longer at risk of litigation.”

Jones said NOAA is making progress.

The federal agency withdrew an environmental impact statement earlier this year that attempted to review about 130 hatchery programs in one study. Since then, the agency has reviewed 17 plans and intends to complete another 24 in 2016, Jones said.

Eight Skagit River hatchery programs for salmon and rainbow trout need genetic management plan approval. NOAA expects to finish reviewing those plans in 2017 and 2018, according to agency documents.

An important industry

State officials including U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen, both D-Wash., have urged NOAA to move quickly to protect the fishing industry.

“Last year’s reduction in winter steelhead hatchery fish released was a warning sign that we need to get these plans finalized with good science,” Larsen said.

Gov. Jay Inslee has also stressed the economic importance of the fisheries.

“Salmon and steelhead hatchery programs throughout the West Coast are at risk (of litigation), and with them the $9 billion in economic benefits generated by the region’s salmon and steelhead fishing industry,” according to a statement form Inslee’s communications office.

An Oct. 28 letter from Inslee to Fish & Wildlife Commission Chair Brad Smith said the 800,000 state fishing licenses sold each year bring in millions of dollars in state revenue.

The Marblemount hatchery has an estimated economic impact of $1.6 million annually, according to Fish & Wildlife. About $700,000 of that has historically come from the steelhead program.

Given the economic and cultural value of Skagit River steelhead, some think it’s too soon to make a decision on a gene bank in the Skagit River.

“We have a lot of issues we need to address about steelhead management that we think should take precedent over designating a gene bank,” Schuyler said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

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