A powerful Washington state senator this morning blasted a federal agency for continued delays in authorizing the resumption of early-timed winter steelhead smolt releases into select Puget Sound rivers.
Yesterday, WDFW was forced to announce that it would have to put around 300,000 of the young fish into landlocked lakes instead of the Nooksack, North Fork Stillaguamish and Dungeness Rivers, which seemed doable just last month, because the National Marine Fisheries Service pulled a switcharoo and decided to do a full-blown environmental impact statement on the plan.
That angered Sen. Kirk Pearson, who has been paying close attention to Puget Sound steelhead issues since last year’s lawsuit over their release, and whose North Cascades district includes more rivers affected by the litigation than any other lawmaker.
“This is devastating for our recreational fishing industry,” he said in a press release. “The federal government’s refusal to take action is a failure to take responsibility. We’ve been urging action for years and they chose to let recreational fishing pay the price rather than do their job.”
Earlier this spring, the feds had given conditional approval to WDFW’s plans to put those smolts into the three rivers, finding in a draft environmental assessment that doing so “would not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery” of wild fish recovery, but after a reported 2,000 comments on the proposal, decided to go with an EIS instead.
“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 NMFS 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.”
Still, it follows on other delays by NMFS in reviewing and authorizing state and tribal hatchery genetic management plans for steelhead and salmon production in the Puget Sound basin over the past decade.
That caught up to WDFW last year when the Wild Fish Conservancy of Duvall sued the agency, resulting in a settlement that put over 80 percent of 2014’s smolt crop into lakes instead of rivers.
Pearson castigated the deal, termed WFC a “bully” and said that WDFW should have stood up to them because settling only encourages them “to continue to sue the state again and again, until they reach their ultimate goal — the elimination of all fish hatcheries.”
When he called WFC into a legislative hearing last July, the group so much as said that was their goal.
“Do you plan more lawsuits, and are you going to try to cut hatchery production in other parts of the state?” Pearson asked WFC’s science advisor Jamie Glasgow.
“The answer to that question is quite simple: It depends. We need to see how the Department of Fish and Wildlife and how NOAA decides to moves forward, and whether or not they are considering the science as they make these policy decisions,” Glasgow responded.
Pearson followed up with, “Are there any hatcheries you do support in the state?”
“There are several that have closed over time – those would be ones that we support,” Glasgow said.
“That are closed. Which means you don’t support any hatcheries,” summarized Pearson.
Glasgow explained that the group feels hatchery production should only play “a very limited roll” in Washington, and said that hatcheries were “an abuse of the wild fish that they impact.
(Responding to yesterday’s news, WFC posted on Facebook that it was a “huge win” for wild steelhead, and thanked supporters for flooding NMFS with comments.)
NMFS boss Rob Jones also made an appearance during Pearson’s hearing last summer, saying that while litigation had been pulling federal staff resources away from reviewing and approving hatchery management plans, those for Puget Sound were then a priority and that additional help had arrived for that work.
To make sure the work got done, earlier this year Pearson cosponsored Senate Joint Memorial 8007, which calls on Congress to provide NMFS with enough resources to expedite its reviews of Puget Sound hatchery salmonid production. It received unanimous approval in the upper chamber.
Now that the feds are going to do an EIS on the three streams means that smolts will only be released into the Skykomish this spring, per the lawsuit settlement, and what’s more, the Sky will provide the only meaningful fisheries this winter, when last year’s release returns, and next winter, when this spring’s does.
And there’s a chance that the process or delays in the new review could hold up approval and scrub all Puget Sound early-timed hatchery winter steelhead smolt releases if authorization doesn’t come before spring 2016.
“Recreational fishing is one of the defining features of both our economy and way of life,” Pearson said. “This puts both our fisheries and fishermen on hold. It’s a huge loss for the state’s rivers and sportsmen.”
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.