Tag Archives: HGMP

‘Worst Ever Return’ Of Puget Sound Steelhead

Welcome to the weird world that is Pugetropolis steelheading circa 2020.

Even as angling reopens on sections of most of them today, state managers are dealing with a significant eggtake shortfall on three of four east Puget Sound river systems due to “the worst ever return” of the popular fish.

According to WDFW’s Edward Eleazer, Kendall Creek on the North Fork Nooksack saw a shortfall of 182,000 fertilized eggs, Whitehorse on the North Fork Stillaguamish 146,000 and Wallace/Reiter on the Skykomish 103,000 — all totaled 431,000 eggs.

THE SKYKOMISH NEAR GOLD BAR IS AMONG THE WATERS REOPENING FOR HATCHERY STEELHEAD RETENTION, THOUGH THE RIVERS WILL BE RISING AS YET ANOTHER RAINSTORM ARRIVES. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Now for a brief mea culpa: The initial headline on the emergency rule change notice I posted yesterday afternoon announcing the reopening of retention of adipose-clipped steelhead on select stretches of three Snohomish and King County river systems mistakenly suggested that broodstock needs had been met because I misread WDFW’s reasoning.

My apologies, as in fact spawning goals were met on only one.

You would think that the rivers should stay shut to try and meet eggtake goals, or to stretch out the run by collecting late-arriving fish to spawn, but under the NOAA-Fisheries permit to operate the Chambers Creek early winter steelhead programs, WDFW can’t use adults that return after Jan. 31 for broodstock purposes, meaning that the fish still in the rivers afterwards are superfluous to spawning needs and thus available for harvest/removal.

The collection cutoff is done to segregate returns of wild and hatchery stocks as much as possible, according to Eleazer.

“We don’t want hatchery broodstock to creep later and later. We have a hard deadline of Jan. 31 as a safety precaution,” he said.

Where other sections of Puget Sound rivers close after the end of January for steelhead, terminal zones on the above rivers and the few others with Chambers fish are typically open through Feb. 15 to allow anglers to try and catch as many clipped ones as possible to prevent them from possibly interbreeding with natives.

As for the 11-day fishing window that began today to try to remove any last returning hatcheries, given the atmospheric hose pointed straight at Pugetropolis, it likely won’t be until very late this weekend if not early next week that anglers will be able to chase the few fish that are still around, though they won’t have seen many lures all season.

Indeed, too much water will bookend a season that began with too little water, as well as very low initial returns that saw WDFW shut down retention in December to try and get as many steelhead back to the hatcheries as possible.

“This is the worst ever return to Puget Sound,” Eleazer said. “It plays into the same thing as the Skagit — poor freshwater and saltwater rearing conditions.”

The Skagit and Sauk’s catch-and-release season for wild winters in February, March and April was cancelled last month after the forecast came in below 4,000, too few steelhead to cast for due to impacts on the stock from other fisheries.

Pointing to The Blob, WDFW said those low returns were “likely the result of severe drought and low river flows in 2015 and 2016, as well as an unprecedented marine heatwave in the Pacific Ocean that negatively affected survival rates.”

Eleazer did note that while Puget Sound programs were seeing anemic runs, those on the Olympic Peninsula had met their broodstock goals and a bit more.

“There’s a Puget Sound element that’s applying extra pressure that we don’t understand,” he stated.

Predation by harbor seals has been eyed as a serious problem for young steelhead migrating out of Deep South Sound and Hood Canal.

If there’s a glimmer of good news, it’s that at least Tokul on the Snoqualmie met its broodstock goal.

Yet still, according to WDFW’s latest hatchery escapement report, as of Jan. 27, a paltry 237 adults had returned to Tokul, Kendall, Whitehorse, Wallace and Reiter, with just 255,027 eggs taken, a far cry from the relatively high abundance of the winter of 2017-18, which saw an overall return of 1,229 adults that produced 801,407 eggs.

With Puget Sound wild steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act and as a result of the federally approved hatchery genetic management plan for the Chambers program, WDFW can only release up to 521,600 winter smolts annually into the Nooksack, Stilly, Sky/Wallace and Snoqualmie.

Meaning the agency and the fishery are now in a very tight spot coming out of this winter.

“We’re working with our comanagers and NOAA to figure out solutions moving forward,” Eleazer said.

ALSO OF NOTE

Yesterday’s WDFW e-reg opening the North Fork Stillaguamish from French Creek up to the Swede Heaven Bridge conflicted with the fishing pamphlet. The printed regs state that those waters closed as of Jan. 31 for steelhead, though game fish remain open through Feb. 15.

Eleazer believes that is an error and was looking into sending out an updated notice that would reopen that water through the 15th for retention of fin-clipped steelhead.

Watch this space for that change.

(Editor’s note Feb. 6, 2020, 3:30 p.m.: WDFW has tweaked its e-reg to clarify the daily limit, two hatchery steelhead, and dates of the above fishery, Feb. 5-15. Also, the online PDF of the fishing pamphlet has been updated on page 1 with corrected regulations for the North Fork Stillaguamish between French Creek and Swede Heaven Bridge, i.e., hatchery steelhead retention is open in that stretch through Feb. 15, not Jan. 31 as originally printed.

Idaho To Close Steelhead Season In Early Dec. Due To Lawsuit Threat

Editor’s update 11:45 a.m., Nov. 14, 2018: Due to the threat of a lawsuit, Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission this morning has voted to suspend the state’s fall steelhead season after Dec. 7 and won’t open the spring season, which begins Jan. 1, 2019, until a fisheries plan is OKed by NMFS, per a report from Eric Barker at The Lewiston Tribune. He says the commission feared IDFG “would be on the hook for legal fees should the season continue and the groups follow through with their intent to sue.” Below is our earlier story on the issue.

Another state, another low-hanging-fruit lawsuit in the works by wild steelhead zealots against fishery agencies.

In 2014 it was WDFW and its Chambers Creek early winter program in Puget Sound; in 2018 it’s IDFG and its A- and B-runs.

ANGLERS WHO LIKE TO FISH FOR IDAHO STEELHEAD LIKE KELLY COLLITON WON’T BE HAPPY WITH TODAY’S NEWS THAT THE THREAT OF A LAWSUIT MORE THAN LOW RUNS ARE FORCING THE STATE TO CLOSE FISHING FOR THE STOCKS. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

The two agencies’ lack of federally approved management plans for hatchery operations and to hold fisheries more so than low runs leave them vulnerable to suits.

Washington’s was eventually settled out of court and a new plan is in place after several disrupted fishing seasons, but now Idaho is under threat.

In October, the Wild Fish Conservancy and Conservation Angler, along with Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Water Keeper notified IDFG that they were going to take it to court in December if they didn’t close steelhead season by early in the month.

This year has seen a low run to the Snake River Basin and all three states dropped the limit to one already, but this lawsuit is very similar to the one WFC and others pursued against WDFW several years ago when it didn’t have a NMFS-OKed hatchery genetic management plan for the Skykomish and other winter rivers.

HGMPs provide the states with Endangered Species Act coverage, and at the time draft plans for multiple rivers and stocks were piling up on the federal fishery overseers’ collective desk following a raft of listings throughout the region.

In IDFG’s case, its expired all the way back in 2009, per Lewiston Morning Tribune outdoor reporter Eric Barker.

“The state submitted a new monitoring and evaluation plan the same year but officials at Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration let it sit idle while working on other pressing issues,” he writes in a story out overnight.

Also at risk are Idaho’s spring, summer and fall Chinook fisheries.

What to do about it is on the agenda of Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission meeting today.

“Department and federal agency review processes to date have found Idaho’s management frameworks for hatchery steelhead and chinook fisheries do not jeopardize wild steelhead populations,” reads a staff briefing out ahead of the confab. “The Department has monitoring and evaluation frameworks in place for hatchery steelhead and chinook fisheries, with annual reporting to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.”

Barker reports NMFS is working on a new draft plan and it’s out for public comment now.

Still, IDFG may have to close steelheading as of Dec. 7 to head off the risk of a lawsuit being filed on the 9th, Barker reports.

Stay tuned.

With Feds And ESA Pushing, Major Change To Popular Sky Summer Steelhead Program Mulled

Washington steelhead managers hope to save the popular Skykomish River summer-run fishery by switching to a local broodstock, a move that feels like a hail Mary but is also described as just about their only realistic path forward.

SKYKOMISH RIVER SKAMANIA-STRAIN HATCHERY SUMMER-RUN STEELHEAD, LIKE THIS ONE CAUGHT ON A RAINY DAY BY WINSTON McCLANAHAN, WOULD BE REPLACED WITH TOLT RIVER SUMMERS UNDER AN AMBITIOUS PLAN WDFW AND THE TULALIP TRIBES HAVE HATCHED TO SAVE THE POPULAR FISHERY. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

Under pressure from federal overseers who want the state to end production of Skamania steelies in Puget Sound streams, WDFW and the Tulalip Tribes have come up with a plan to replace the strain in the Sky with Tolt River summers instead.

The whole thing could take years to get approved let alone implement, but it’s also a testament to the lengths officials are willing to go these days for Puget Sound’s last consumptive steelhead opportunity.

“We’re looking for a way to preserve that fishery,” says WDFW’s Jim Scott, a special assistant to the director. “We know its importance.”

He says that switching to the in-basin steelhead will also help meet conservation and Endangered Species Act goals for the listed stock.

The good news is that at this point, side-drifting and spoon fishing for hot summers on the Sky seems unlikely to suddenly come to a screeching halt.

“There’s no expectation to eliminate the existing program until we build up the Tolt,” Scott says, “and there will be a period of overlap of the programs” before releases of the steelhead strain originally from Southwest Washington ends.

THE SKYKOMISH ABOVE PROCTOR CREEK, BELOW REITER PONDS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Several things are driving the move, Scott says, including last year’s new Mitchell Act biological opinion for hatchery operations in the Columbia Basin.

“NOAA informed us they would no longer permit out-of-DPS (distinct population segment) steelhead stocks in the Lower Columbia,” says Scott.

That effectively killed off use of Chambers Creek steelhead there.

Scott says that now-retired National Marine Fisheries Service manager Rob Jones dropped another strong hint afterwards about what was coming down the line — that managers should “just say no to stocks outside DPS.”

“Given the tremendous value of the Skykomish summer-run fishery, that created a great deal of concern in my mind,” Scott says.

Like the state, the feds are just as vulnerable to ESA lawsuits for incomplete or poorly permitted hatchery operations.

A July 21, 2017 letter (page 55 of this PDF) from NMFS West Coast regional administrator Barry Thom noted WDFW had yet to submit an updated hatchery genetic management plan for the summer steelhead program at Reiter Ponds on the Sky as well as Whitehorse on the North Fork Stilly, that those be reviewed with stakeholders and that the review result in the “timely development of alternatives to using segregated Skamania broodstock in the Snohomish and Stillaguamish basins.”

So WDFW along with the Tulalips and the ad hoc Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group have been casting around for potential solutions.

Scott suggests that there are still other though lesser possibilities, but one participant in PSSAG’s “gritty discussions” says this is it to save the fishery.

“WDFW has only one alternative, and that is to mine the Tolt River native stocks,” says member Mark Spada, who is also president of the venerable Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club and a longtime local angler.

The Tolt is a tributary of the Snoqualmie River which joins the Sky below Monroe to form the Snohomish.

“Without the Tolt fish, the summer-run program is done, despite being arguably one of the most successful hatchery programs ever designed,” Spada says. “This decision makes no sense, but the Sky smolt plant has already been reduced from 160,000, to 116,000, at the direction of NMFS.”

Two years ago, it actually looked even more grim than that. Rumors flew that Reiter Ponds summer steelhead output might be cut by around half — or the program killed off entirely.

THE SKYKOMISH IS THE ONLY RIVER NORTH OF THE COWLITZ AND EAST OF FORKS WHERE WESTERN WASHINGTON ANGLERS STAND A GOOD CHANCE OF CATCHING HARVESTABLE SUMMER STEELHEAD AND CHINOOK ON THE SAME FLOAT. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

A PSSAG meeting handout from early last month explains the Skamanias-for-Tolts plan more fully.

It involves pumping redds in the Tolt to collect eggs that would then be hatched at Tokul Creek Hatchery. Fish would be reared there, then released from there and back in the Tolt.

Fertilized eggs from first-generation adults returning to Tokul would be transferred to Reiter for rearing and release there and upstream at Sunset Falls.

Release of unmarked steelhead above Sunset Falls would cease and Skamania production at Reiter would be phased out as Tolts took over.

Skamanias, known for their fight, are a 1950s mix of Klickitat River and Washougal River steelhead and come from the hatchery on the Washougal.

They were once planted in numerous Puget Sound rivers, including the Dungeness, Green, Skagit, Cascade, South Fork of the Stillaguamish, Canyon Creek, Sultan, North and South Forks of the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Raging and Tolt.

But they have a propensity for interbreeding with native fish — steelhead in the North Fork Sky are “almost all Skamanias,” according to Scott — and so have been largely discontinued, leading to shrinking fishing opportunities over the years.

One big question is, if local wild summers are already Skamanias in part, why even bother and put the fishery at risk?

When WDFW was mulling Puget Sound wild gene banks in 2015, a presentation showed that native steelhead in the Tolt had been genetically influenced by the strain.

But according to Scott, new work shows that that percentage is “dropping” and that there may be different genes even between early and late spawners.

“Through careful selection, we hope to select for mostly Tolt summers,” he says.

Relatively speaking, not many summer steelhead spawn in the trib — a WDFW chart shows the escapement goal has rarely been met the past 15 years — and 2015’s drought probably didn’t do us any favors either, but a side benefit of the plan is that it could help rebuild Tolt stocks.

While it all seems like a long reach, Spada’s actually optimistic.

“With the science now available, the Tolt project has a good chance of succeeding, and should be the long-term answer,” he says.

And Scott too is bullish.

“We want to be careful how we do it, but we have real experience restoring runs that are very small,” he says.

He points to restoration work on Hamma Hamma steelhead, Nooksack spring Chinook and Stillaguamish fall Chinook that is “opening up paths we didn’t have before.”

Scott credits PSSAG members for their work on the issue, calling them “a great group of folks” with a wide diversity of perspectives.

Indeed, he cautions that not everybody’s on board with the general consensus to move forward with this plan, but “to the extent we can, we’ll address their issues.”

Yet more questions remain.

How long will it take for WDFW and the Tulalips to write a solid HGMP?

Without a local ally like former state Sen. Kirk Pearson to chivvy them, with NMFS’s workload how long will it take for the feds to review the document, get clarifications and ultimately — hopefully — approve it?

Scott doesn’t want to hazard a guess how many years it may be.

And in the meanwhile, will the Wild Fish Conservancy or other similar-minded groups use the lack of an ESA-required HGMP to sue WDFW over Skamanias, like they did with Chambers winters?

That’s all TBD, but Spada’s crossing his fingers WDFW’s gamble pays off because of the importance of the Skykomish River fishery to Puget Sound steelheaders.

“It’s the only viable summer-run program left,” he says.

THE  SKYKOMISH RIVER SUMMER-RUN PROGRAM PRODUCES FISH FOR BANK ANGLERS WHO FLOCK TO REITER AND CABLE, AND SIDE-DRIFTERS WHO WORK LOWER IN THE RIVER SYSTEM. A QUARTET SHOWS OFF FIVE PLUS A SUMMER CHINOOK CAUGHT EARLY LAST JUNE WITH GUIDE SHEA FISHER. (THEFISHERE.COM)