It’s The Lakes And Not Rivers Again For North Sound Steelie Smolts

FINAL UPDATE 7:50 P.M., MAY 28, 2015

Federal overseers are stepping back from their conditional approval of resuming hatchery winter steelhead smolt stocking on three North Puget Sound rivers this spring.

That means nearly 300,000 young steelhead slated for them will be released into lakes instead, and the Skykomish will be the sole river in the basin that sees meaningful fisheries on clipped winter-runs this season and the following one.

Earlier this spring, in a draft environmental assessment, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that putting the young steelhead into the Nooksack, North Fork Stillaguamish and Dungness Rivers “would not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery” of wild fish, but late this morning a National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman said a environmental impact statement will be done instead.

DANNY LARGER TAIL SHOT

THE TAIL FIN OF A NORTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER HATCHERY STEELHEAD, CAUGHT THIS PAST WINTER, IS EMBLEMATIC OF SMOLT RELEASES INTO THE SNOHOMISH COUNTY RIVER. DANNY LESLIE CAUGHT THE FISH IN DECEMBER; NO SMOLTS WERE RELEASED INTO THE STILLY FOR RETURN THIS WINTER, AND IT’S LIKELY NONE WILL BE FOR THE FOLLOWING SEASON EITHER BECAUSE OF N.M.F.S’S DECISION TO DO AN E.I.S. BEFORE ALLOWING STOCKING TO RESUME. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

“We’ve determined that given the intense interest in this issue (hundreds of pages of comments) and the wide range of opinion we received on the draft EA that we are going to do a full EIS,” said NMFS’s Michael Milstein in Portland. “The EIS will provide more opportunity for public comment and review but will also take more time. We will hold public workshops to solicit further input this summer.”

WDFW Director Jim Unsworth said in a press release that the state understood NMFS’s decision to analyze state hatchery programs through the lens of ensuring that they stand up to legal challenges, but he was not pleased with it either.

“We support the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead, but we are disappointed that NMFS has been unable to complete the review of these programs,” he said. “The decision by NMFS to conduct a full and potentially lengthy EIS process will delay approval of these hatchery programs and have serious impacts on recreational fishing on several Puget Sound rivers.”

Reaction to the news on Northwest Sportsman‘s Facebook page ranged from thumbs down and boos to calls for a rally and discounted fishing licenses because of lost opportunity.

“I feel sorry for the rivers on the (Olympic Peninsula) and (Oregon), because here we come!” posted Kevin Hadeen.

“Before ‘Duvall-ville’ and the rest of the Cascade foothills became over run by blacktop and chain stores, every creek held spawning wild fish…hatchery fish didn’t create this, you people did,” added Kurt Lewis, referring to the Wild Fish Conservancy which is headquartered in the lower Snoqualmie Valley town and whose lawsuit last year ultimately led to the action.

For its part, WFC called it a “huge win” for wild steelhead, and thanked supporters for flooding NMFS with comments.

A total of 150,000, 130,000 and 10,000 smolts had been raised for release into the Nooksack, Stilly and Dungeness, respectively, this spring.

Now, not only will those three streams see few returning two-salt steelhead this winter (most come back from the ocean after a year at sea as one-salts), but in the 2016-17 season, there won’t be any hatchery fish back in them.

Plans to release 140,000 smolts into the Green and Snoqualmie were also scrapped earlier this year when NMFS decided to put those hatchery programs through a separate EIS, WDFW reported.

And committing to do a full-blown EIS — with all the public meetings and reviews, etc., etc., etc., that entails — may also impact releases into the Skykomish next spring, meaning, the 2017-18 fishery on it could be in jeopardy.

The Sky was the only Puget Sound river that saw appreciable numbers of fish — 180,000 smolts — go out in the wake of last spring’s lawsuit settlement between WDFW and the Wild Fish Conservancy over the state agency’s lack of updated hatchery genetic management plans for Chambers Creek-origin steelhead.

That was blamed on inadequate federal staff available to review documents for those and other Sound salmonid stocks.

Afterwards, WDFW staff from multiple sections of the Fisheries Program put a massive amount of work into preparing new documents for NMFS review. They were assisted by staff from the Jamestown S’Klallam, Nooksack and Stillaguamish Tribes, the Tulalip Tribes and Lummi Nation.

Scott Chitwood, natural resources director for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe near Sequim, said he too was disappointed by the decision and added he’d hoped the EA would have been sufficient to release 10,000 early-timed winter smolts into the Dungeness. He termed that a “modest” amount that is actually less than natural production in the stream.

“This will be two years in a row that steelhead smolts from the Dungeness won’t be released. My hope is that by April of next year we’ll have completed an EIS and be covered by a hatchery genetic management plan. Three years in a row will put a hole in our program,” he said, and maybe kill it.

Another option to keep it going might be to decouple approval of the Dungeness from larger programs on the Nooksack and Stilly, on the other side of Puget Sound.

This matter of hatchery steelhead even caught the attention of the state legislature this session. Lawmakers, including Sen. Kirk Pearson and all the other members of his Natural Resources and Parks Committee, drafted a bill calling on Congress to provide NOAA with enough resources to expedite its reviews of Puget Sound hatchery salmonid production. It made it through the state Senate and was sent to the House.

(Another bill, SB 5551, which sought to punish the Wild Fish Conservancy, er, outfits that have “within ten calendar years prior to the date of the grant application, brought any legal action before any court or administrative tribunal against the state relating to hatchery facility operations” didn’t get as far.)

While the Wild Fish Conservancy argues that hatchery releases impact ESA-listed steelhead populations, WDFW maintains that in general, the changes they’ve put in place with the Puget Sound steelhead program — collecting eggs earlier in the winter run and not sharing them between basins, releasing fewer smolts and only from locations where returning adults can be collected, among others — have been very effective in preventing interaction between hatchery and wild fish.

It’s also increasingly clear that Puget Sound, through which smolts must transit to the North Pacific, is a deadly trap because of rising numbers of pinnipeds that are targeting young steelhead, perhaps because other prey is missing. Earlier this spring NMFS reported that the jellyfish biomass in the South Sound has increased massively while baitfish populations have crashed. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission this week reported that fewer than 1,000 wild steelhead return annually to the Nisqually, where no hatchery winter-runs have been released in decades.

The draft environmental assessment that NMFS put out for review earlier this spring seemed to indicate that releases could occur on the three northern and Straits streams, but now it appears that a sharp U-turn was made at the federal level.

Whether that was to ensure it withstood lawsuits, a Northwest Sportsman contributor reports hearing a rumor that as the time to release the smolts out of the barns came nigh, the Wild Fish Conservancy was going to sue NMFS over the issue — the settlement protected WDFW for two years — but he couldn’t get anyone to confirm that.

“We realize this will be disappointing to many, but as much as we would like to get this done quickly we have to do it right,” said NMFS’s Milstein.

As for where those smolts will go, WDFW Inland Fish Program manager Chris Donley said that the agency will again put the steelhead into lakes that are unconnected to saltwaters to prevent the anadramous fish from heading to sea, but that he wasn’t sure if bonus limits like last fall would be available.

“We’re not viewing this as a great gain for the trout program,” he said. “We see it as making the best lemonade from a whole pile of lemons.”

Stay tuned to the agency’s website.

Editor’s note: A mathematical mistake led to an earlier version of this blog stating that nearly 400,000 steelhead smolts had been planned for release into the Dungeness, North Fork Stillaguamish and Nooksack this spring, but in fact, just shy of 300,000 were.

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE

NOAA Fisheries to hold workshops on Puget Sound steelhead hatcheries

Given substantial public debate officials seek additional input on steelhead hatchery programs

NOAA Fisheries will hold public workshops this summer to seek input on early-winter steelhead hatchery programs in Puget Sound. The agency wants to ensure that issues and views surrounding long-term conservation of salmon and steelhead in Puget Sound are fully considered.

The workshops will build on public comments NOAA Fisheries received earlier this year on a draft Environmental Assessment reviewing steelhead programs in the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, and Dungeness River basins.

The three hatchery programs are operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to support recreational and tribal harvest. In July 2014, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Lummi Nation, Nooksack Tribe, Stillaguamish Tribe, and Tulalip Tribes submitted Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans to NOAA Fisheries for the three programs for approval under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Puget Sound steelhead and Chinook salmon are protected under the ESA, and the agencies and tribes must ensure that the early-winter steelhead hatchery programs do not jeopardize the recovery and survival of these listed species. NOAA Fisheries published its draft review of the programs in March 2015 and received over 2,000 public comments that expressed a wide range of concerns.

NOAA Fisheries will hold the workshops to supplement its ongoing environmental reviews under the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  NOAA Fisheries will be initiating an Environmental Impact Statement to allow for additional public input and review.

Given the need for further review, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will release this year’s hatchery steelhead into Washington lakes instead of the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, and Dungeness River basins where they could affect threatened Puget Sound Chinook and steelhead.

“While I am glad that we met our goal of completing a draft Environmental Assessment by April, we have more work to do before these fish can be released into Puget Sound,” said Will Stelle, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region.  “We realize this will be frustrating to some. But as much as we’d like to get this done quickly, it’s more important to get it right.”

The workshops will be scheduled shortly and the details announced as soon as they are available. For further details on the review of the Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans for the three steelhead hatchery programs, and to see documents released so far, go to:

http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/hatcheries/salmon_and_steelhead_hatcheries.html

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

WDFW to release hatchery steelhead into inland lakes again this year

OLYMPIA – Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fish managers will release “early winter” hatchery steelhead into inland lakes again this year, now that federal fisheries officials have decided to conduct a full-scale environmental impact analysis of all Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs.

WDFW leaders announced the action after learning that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has decided to develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate the effects of early winter steelhead hatchery programs on the survival and recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead and chinook salmon, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The decision was based, in part, on more than 2,000 public comments to NMFS that expressed a wide range of questions and concerns about the environmental impact of hatchery steelhead programs.

In March, NMFS (also known as NOAA Fisheries) published a draft environmental assessment of hatchery steelhead programs in three river basins. WDFW officials had hoped NMFS’ completion of the assessment would lead to approval of WDFW steelhead hatchery operations and clear the way for the release of steelhead into several Puget Sound rivers under terms of a federal court settlement last year. However, the additional time needed to complete a more detailed EIS means that a decision on approval of these hatchery programs will come after the release window for 2015.

“We support the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead, but we are disappointed that NMFS has been unable to complete the review of these programs,” said WDFW Director Jim Unsworth. “The decision by NMFS to conduct a full and potentially lengthy EIS process will delay approval of these hatchery programs and have serious impacts on recreational fishing on several Puget Sound rivers.”

However, Unsworth said WDFW understands the controversial nature of the subject, as well as the federal government’s desire to analyze hatchery programs within a full-scale EIS that stands up to potential legal challenges and clears the way for hatcheries to stay in operation for the long-term.

Last year the Wild Fish Conservancy of Duvall sued WDFW, alleging that the department’s Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs violated the Endangered Species Act by impairing the recovery of wild steelhead, salmon, and bull trout. In settling that case, the department agreed to refrain from planting early winter (Chambers Creek) steelhead into most rivers in the Puget Sound region until NMFS completed its environmental review.

Until recently, WDFW officials believed the federal agency’s timetable would allow the release of juvenile steelhead into several rivers this spring, but those plans have now been canceled. One exception is the release of 180,000 early winter steelhead into the Skykomish River, which is permitted under the federal court order approving the settlement.

Jim Scott, head of the WDFW Fish Program, said rivers that will not receive steelhead in 2015 include the Nooksack, Stillaguamish and Dungeness, which would have received 150,000, 130,000, and 10,000 steelhead, respectively. Earlier this year, NMFS announced it would conduct a full EIS for hatcheries that release steelhead into the Snoqualmie and Green rivers, which were slated to receive 74,000 and 70,000 fish, Scott said.

Instead of releasing juvenile steelhead into those five rivers, WDFW will plant them into inland waters that have no connection with Puget Sound, he said. WDFW will announce its fish planting schedule as soon as possible on the department’s website: http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/reports_plants.html.

 

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