The Wild Fish Conservancy faced tough questions during a hearing in Olympia this past Tuesday on its lawsuit over Puget Sound hatchery winter steelhead production.
Called by a state senator who represents a legislative district that was affected more than any other by a settlement agreement with the state barring smolt releases on most Puget Sound rivers this spring, Sen. Kirk Pearson wanted to know if the Duvall-based group planned to continue using the courts to ax releases of salmon and steelhead which power recreational and tribal fisheries.
“Do you plan more lawsuits, and are you going to try to cut hatchery production in other parts of the state?” the Monroe Republican asked.
“The answer to that question is quite simple,” said Jamie Glasgow, WFC’s science adviser. “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.”
Pearson followed up with, “Are there any hatcheries you do support in the state?”
Glasgow’s answer was astonishing, even if obvious by the numerous lawsuits WFC has filed over the past decade.
“There are several that have closed over time – those would be ones that we support,” he said.
“That are closed. Which means you don’t support any hatcheries,” summarized Pearson.
“There is a very limited roll for hatchery production in this state, we feel,” responded Glasgow. “They are going to be very kind of extreme situations where conservation hatchery may provide some benefit if they’re used for a very limited duration. For the most part, the way we seem to be using hatcheries I think is an abuse of the wild fish that they impact.”
His group argues and science shows that where hatchery and wild steelhead occur together, there’s a chance for the wild stocks to weaken through time via breeding with clipped fish, but one of the beauties of WDFW’s Chambers Creek early-winter steelhead program — the subject of the lawsuit — is that the run timing purposefully avoids the lion’s share of the native return. The agency also has made big changes to its hatchery operations in Puget Sound since the May 2007 listing of steelhead as threatened.
WFC’s director Kurt Beardslee has also said that hatcheries can’t rebuild populations, but that’s what appears to be happening in Hood Canal, as part of a NMFS research project. Still, Glasgow said he expects to see state and federal agencies moving away from hatchery production over time.
“But until that time you’ll be trying to achieve your objective through the courts,” Pearson stated.
A few minutes later, after questions from another senator, Pearson followed up with, “Your organization, in the last decade, you’ve been a recipient of over $9 million for salmon recovery projects. My question is, with that – and I think some of the project are still pending, correct me if I’m wrong – are there some future lawsuits you’re looking at? And at the same time, are you going to be applying for more salmon enhancement dollars?”
Glasgow pointed to a Hatchery Scientific Review Group report and claimed that habitat and hatchery issues have to be worked on “simultaneously, and that’s exactly what our mission has us doing.”
With several other legislators in attendance, including the House’s Agriculture & Natural Resources chair Brian Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat and sportsman, Republican Sen. Pam Roach of Pierce County and lawmaker’s Sportsmen’s Caucus, and Sen. Vincent Buys, a Whatcom County Republican, Pearson followed up with, “So you’ll still be asking for more grant dollars the same time you’re bringing out more lawsuits?”
Glasgow didn’t answer the latter part of the question that time, but said Wild Fish Conservancy would be competing to be awarded funding for habitat projects.
During his presentation at the beginning of the nearly three-hour-long hearing available on TVW, Glasgow pointed out that while Puget Sound steelhead have declined 97 percent from levels in 1900, a WDFW study says Pugetropolis still has 79 percent of the historical steelhead habitat it had 114 years ago.
“It seems clear there are other reasons for steelhead decline in addition to habitat loss,” Glasgow said, pointing to the other three of the famous four Hs — hatcheries, hydropower and harvest.
(NOAA now adds a fifth, “harm from invasive species.”)
But what he did not mention was the relative quality of the lost 21 percent of Puget Sound steelhead habitat. Is that water more or less productive than the remaining habitat? Does it provide more or better spawning gravel and rearing grounds than the remaining 79 percent can or ever will? Wild, undammed rivers in Cascade wildernesses are truly great things, but lowland reaches where man’s effects have been most intense are very important to these fish. For fish that rear in rivers for a year or so, their loss or modification could have a stronger impact on production than other parts of the system.
Glasgow also presented slides showing declines in Skagit River steelhead harvest, a trend that intensified beginning roughly in 1990 despite increased smolt releases, and another that illustrated stable wild populations in the North Umpqua, where hatchery winters are not released.
The comparison with the Umpqua was puzzling. The Southwest Oregon river drains straight into the ocean and has nowhere close to the human population and industry or apparent problems of Puget Sound, which saw a marked widespread decline of steelhead that began around the early 1990s. It’s unclear why these stocks and those in Southwest British Columbia are struggling, but National Marine Fisheries Service biologists have been looking into that dropoff and they believe they see a “strong marine signal” specific to the Sound that isn’t echoed by Washington coast or Columbia runs.
They’re looking into factors such as health of the smolts leaving Sound rivers, bottlenecks within the migration routes through the inland saltwater and increased marine mammal populations. So far they’ve found that only one out of eight hatchery smolts and one out of five wild smolts are surviving the journey from river mouth to open ocean. The effect is strongest amongst South Sound stocks.
But it wasn’t just the Wild Fish Conservancy on the hot seat.
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife director Phil Anderson was called on to explain why his agency didn’t have the federal permits to operate its early winter steelhead program – the lack of those is what WFC sued over.
Rob Jones of the National Marine Fisheries Service noted that litigation was pulling staff resources away from reviewing and approving hatchery management plans, but said that those for Puget Sound were now a priority and that additional help has arrived for that work.
With most of this year’s smolts headed for lakes instead of rivers, the subtext of Rep. Blake’s question to Jones about a best-case scenario for delivery of federal permits for winter steelhead programs was whether they would be able to be released next year.
Jones replied that paperwork for the Snohomish – half of which is in Pearson’s district and includes the important Skykomish River as well as Snoqualmie and Wallace– and Dungeness systems was furthest along, and he was hopeful it would be finished by the end of the year.
Beforehand, however, he had emphasized that federal permission is not a shield from lawsuits: Groups could then sue NMFS over their decision.
Two tribal representatives also testified.
Ray Fryberg, fish and wildlife director for the Tulalips, talked to the problem of global warming, and said, “there’s a great big huge picture to look at.”
He spoke to the region’s cultural fishing heritage, and called WFC’s hatchery lawsuit “a giant step backwards.” He said a better approach might have been to go to court where perhaps a judge would have ordered all the parties to talk together.
“Let’s get to the table. I can’t get to the table with your finger in my eye,” Fryberg said. “I can’t. But I’m willing to sit down — any of us here … We’re about working together, and that’s what we encourage. Everybody that is out here, we need to be at the table. We’re one people here.”
Randy Kinley of the Lummi Tribe, said this wasn’t just about steelhead, but “a way of life” guaranteed by treaties made by the U.S. government in 1855. Those once were a huge source of conflict amongst tribal and sport anglers, but he noted genuine progress on that front.
“I think what’s so ironic today is that, where were we 40 years ago?” Kinley said, a reference to the Boldt Decision of 1974. “And what I mean, these guys right here and us guys, we weren’t even sitting at the same table. And like my good friend (Ray Fryberg) said, now here we’re fighting for the same thing. It’s about the survival and perpetuation of fish. If we can’t solve these problems collectively, what kind of legacy are we going to leave for our grandkids? Hatcheries are inevitable, because in my way of thinking is that, you’re never going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
He had a sharp word for his other “friend,” Anderson, and WDFW about settling “unilaterally” (Anderson said the lawsuit was against the agency, but said that there were discussions with some tribes), and, unafraid of the courts, pointed to a recent victory by the tribes over fish-passage-blocking culverts.
In the audience were numerous sport anglers who provided a wide range of views during public comment.
Twenty-five people came forward with everything from pleas to stop all fishing to veiled calls for an end to tribal gillnetting to attaboys for the lawsuit to laments over lost fishing opportunities to open questions about why Nisqually River wild steelhead haven’t bounced back despite no hatchery steelhead releases for over two decades.
Several members of the region’s sportfishing industry were also there, including Gabe Miller. He recalled that growing up in North Bend, nearby steelhead fisheries helped keep he and his friends out of trouble. Now a buyer for Farwest Sports, owners of Sportco and Outdoor Emporium and a Northwest Sportsman advertiser, Miller said that fishing opportunities in the rivers in his company’s backyards represent a “very large influence on our business.”
During the otherwise slow winter fishing period, the two outlets can move a quarter million dollars worth of product, thanks to steelhead, he said.
Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, which Northwest Sportsman is a member of, said that Three Rivers Marine, a tackle-and-boat shop in Woodinville not far from the banks of the Sky, Wallace, Snoqualmie and other Westside rivers, could trace “fully 30 percent of its annual revenues from steelhead fisheries.”
Like Kinley, she wasn’t as afraid as WDFW was of taking the lawsuit to U.S. District Court, and pointed to past experiences on ESA issues.
“When the states and the feds and the tribes stand in front of a judge and say, ‘Your honor, you were right, we didn’t get our paperwork done, we’re working to remedy this problem,’ it’s my belief — I’m not an attorney and I’m certainly not as smart as the agency managers –but it’s my belief that a judge would give great deference to the agencies trying to work together to resolve the deficiencies in the paperwork.”
Pointing to the difficulties of trying to get anglers to buy licenses for shrinking opportunities — one man noted that WDFW’s press release on not releasing this spring’s smolt crop came out the same day new licenses are required — Hamilton added, “We regret that this was settled and wish we would have had a chance to fight it out.”
Asked if she had any idea how many jobs the lawuit might have affected, Hamilton said that Three Rivers may have to lay off two to five employees with the loss of 50 percent of the steelhead opportunity in the future.
“They’re very concerned,” she said.
With the Wild Fish Conservancy’s statements on hatcheries and their proclivity for lawsuits, we should all be.