New Early Winter SW WA Steelhead Strains An Option As WDFW Outlines Coming Changes

A press release out from Southwest Washington steelhead managers bears bad news and good, and an intriguing possibility.

Due to the recently approved Mitchell Act biological opinion, the end of early-timed Chambers Creek steelhead releases is coming soon to three rivers.

But WDFW plans on upping releases of local late-timed hatchery stocks and releasing a bridge stock in some waters.

And what’s more, NMFS’s huge document carves out room to develop new runs that would return in November, December and January.

That said, the first of those new early steelhead might not show up for, at minimum, 10 Thanksgivings.

Still, reading between the lines, one wonders if there might be hope of restoring the Cowlitz’s famed early winter fishery that way as well …

THE WASHOUGAL RIVER’S CHAMBERS CREEK EARLY WINTER STEELHEAD PROGRAM WILL BE PHASED OUT IN FAVOR OF ONE BASED ON KALAMA WINTER-RUNS. (FISHING PHOTO CONTEST)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s WDFW’s press release in full:

Anglers who fish for steelhead in five tributaries of the lower Columbia River can expect to see some changes in those fisheries as a result of new federal requirements for state hatchery production recently issued by NOAA-Fisheries.

In accordance with the new requirements, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will no longer release Chambers Creek winter steelhead into the Kalama, Coweeman, or Washougal rivers after this year. The same is true for Rock and Salmon creeks.

Developed in Puget Sound and introduced to the Columbia Basin in the 1950s, the Chambers Creek stock will be prohibited from release into those tributaries after this year under a federal biological opinion (known as a “BiOp”) issued by NOAA-Fisheries in January.

Eric Kinne, WDFW hatchery division manager, said the department expects to release the last of about 200,000 Chambers Creek fish into those waters later this month. Starting next year, the department will replace those fish with steelhead from local stocks.

“The BiOp concluded that eliminating that stock would help protect the genetic integrity of wild steelhead populations,” Kinne said. “We are committed to recovering wild salmon and steelhead populations, while providing sustainable fishing opportunities for anglers in the Columbia River Basin and throughout the state.”

Kinne said Chambers Creek fish will return to rivers and streams for the next three years, after which area fisheries will depend on steelhead from local stocks. To support those fisheries, WDFW plans to:

· Release a total of 135,000 local Kalama late winter steelhead – an increase of 45,000 fish – into the Kalama River each year. In the long term, WDFW plans to develop an early-timed run, similar to that of the Chambers Creek stock, that will return from November through January.

· Release winter steelhead available from the Eagle Creek hatchery in Oregon as a near-term replacement for Chambers Creek stock in the Washougal and Coweeman rivers and in Rock Creek.

· Replace Chambers Creek fish with Kalama late winter stock in Salmon Creek.

On the Kalama River, WDFW also plans to substitute a local broodstock – Kalama summer steelhead – for Skamania-origin summer steelhead.

Kinne said WDFW’s plan for replacing the Chambers Creek fish will increase the annual number of smolt plants by 50 percent, although the department’s effort to develop an early-timed run that corresponds to the Chambers Creek return will likely take a decade or more.

“Anglers will definitely miss that early winter steelhead fishery until we can establish an early run using local stocks,” Kinne said.

Meanwhile, state fishery managers are preparing for future requirements of the federal BiOp, which will be phased in through 2022. The next phase focuses on salmon hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin, establishing new requirements on the type, number and location of salmon released by hatcheries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho that receive federal funding under the Mitchell Act.

Approved by Congress in 1938, the Mitchell Act was designed to compensate northwest states for impacts to salmon runs resulting from dams, water diversions, pollution and logging in the Columbia basin. Under the BiOp, state, federal and tribal hatchery operations that do not comply with the new regulations risk losing federal funding provided under that law.

Seven of those facilities operated by WDFW below Bonneville Dam receive approximately $5.5 million in Mitchell Act funding per year.

One provision of the BiOp calls for reducing annual releases of “tule” fall chinook salmon in Washington state by 5.4 million fish, partly offset by higher fish production in Oregon. Other requirements include the installation of six new weirs – at a cost of more than $1 million – along with increased monitoring and reporting responsibilities.

Kelly Cunningham, deputy assistant director of WDFW’s Fish Program, said the new requirements will put a strain on the department’s resources.

“For the past decade, WDFW has made substantial progress in restructuring our hatchery system to protect wild fish,” Cunningham said. “But the kind of changes envisioned under the BiOp will require new funding. Without additional support, we will not be able to achieve the goals set by NOAA-Fisheries, and will be forced to reduce hatchery releases or halt production at some hatcheries altogether.”

Cunningham said he and other fishery managers will be conferring with NOAA-Fisheries on implementation of the BiOp during each phase of the process.

The federal BiOp on Mitchell Act hatcheries is posted at: http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/publications/hatchery/mitchell-act/mitchell-act_opinion_011517.pdf

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