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WDFW Commission Denies Petition To Restrict Popular Skykomish Fisheries

A utility district’s petition to restrict bait fishing for half the year and delay the opening of the summer Chinook and steelhead season on Washington’s Skykomish was rebuffed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission late last week.

That left local anglers like Mark Spada breathing a sigh of relief for the moment.

“The sportfishing community worked very hard to educate the commission to the importance of this last-of-its-kind fishing opportunity for the North Sound,” said the president of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club. “Thankfully they listened, and voted to deny this uninformed petition by the PUD.”

KRISTIN BISHOP SHOWS OFF A NICE SKYKOMISH SUMMER CHINOOK CAUGHT IN JUNE 2017. A UTILITY DISTRICT’S REQUEST TO RESTRICT GEAR AND SEASON TIMING ON THE RIVER WOULD “SIGNIFICANTLY AFFECT” ITS FISHERIES FOR HATCHERY KINGS AND STEELHEAD. (THEFISHERE.COM)

But the citizen panel did ask WDFW to consider the request during the upcoming North of Falcon salmon-season-setting process, where fishing rules for 2020-21 will be determined through preseason forecasting and consultations with tribal comanagers before approval by federal overseers.

The petition came from the Snohomish County Public Utility District, which is concerned about wild steelhead recovery in the watershed, where it operates a dam it has to mitigate for.

Speaking for the utility, fisheries biologist Larry Lowe asked the state agency to enact selective gear regulations from July 15 through January 31 and push the summer opener back two to three weeks to June 15.

Lowe said that despite enhancement projects on the Skykomish and its tributary the Sultan, where PUD’s dam, hydropower facilities and reservoir are, native winter-run returns have declined to “an alarmingly low level,” with just 178 and 55 back to the mainstems of both rivers, respectively, this year.

And he said that the fishery for hatchery kings and summer-runs is impacting pre- and postspawn wild winters, as well as outmigrating smolts.

“Wild salmon and steelhead face many complex and costly challenges on the road to recovery. The requested rule changes are neither complex nor costly and will continue to provide ample fishing opportunity for recreational anglers as well as provide the resource protections needed for species recovery,” Lowe wrote.

But WDFW’s regional fisheries manager Edward Eleazer says the fishery comes in well below allowable impacts, and he points to greater threats to the steelhead stock than angling.

“Major pressures for steelhead are harbor seals, habitat degradation and climate change,” he told the commission during its Nov. 15 conference call.

The pinnipeds have been identified as eating large numbers of outmigrating salmonids in Puget Sound.

PUD’s Diversion and Culmback Dams have blocked all fish passage to most of the Sultan for decades, and much of the Sultan and Skykomish watersheds outside of three wilderness areas have been heavily logged, dumping sediment into the rivers. In the valley, dikes armor banks to protect the BNSF rail line, farms and towns.

Eleazer pointed out to commissioners that the Skykomish fishery is operated under a comanager agreement, and is authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have a maximum impact of 4.2 percent on wild winter steelhead.

“Recent estimates by NOAA say we’re more like 1.6 percent, so the impacts on steelhead are negligible and not severe like the petitioner is claiming,” Eleazer said.

He said the proposed rule changes would “significantly affect hatchery Chinook and hatchery steelhead fishing.”

It’s fair to say that the Skykomish is where anglers are digging in their heels.

“The fact that the smolt mortality and wild fish encounters were below the allowable minimums as outlined by the NOAA permit for this fishery gave PUD no legitimate case for the rule change they were petitioning for,” argues Spada.

In this era of decreased hatchery releases and salmon and steelhead fishing opportunities, the Sky is the last bastion of consumptive angling in Puget Sound. It’s the only river north of the Cowlitz where Chinook and steelhead can be kept in June and July.

It’s the river that WDFW prioritized in the Chambers Creek early winter steelhead settlement with the Wild Fish Conservancy, and it’s the one they’ve come up with a plan for saving the summer steelhead fishery out of another WFC lawsuit.

Just under 500 Chinook and 1,573 steelhead were caught on the Sky during 2017’s summer fishery, according to WDFW’s 2017 sport catch report, the most recent available, along with 1,863 winter steelhead during the fall-winter season.

While eggs and sand shrimp are popular and productive offerings for summer kings, coho, chums and both summer and winter steelhead, under selective gear rules bait and scents are prohibited. Anglers are also limited to lures with single barbless hooks (except plugs), and required to use knotless nets.

Eleazer acknowledged that PUD is an important stakeholder in fishery issues in the Skykomish watershed, and the county agency does a lot of steelhead and salmon habitat and recovery work.

“One of the reasons why they’re so alarmed, and our staff is alarmed as well, is because of the extreme drought and climate conditions that we saw in 2015,” he said. “And so the salmon and steelhead returning this year, their parents came into the system during 2015 and it wasn’t very hospitable for them to survive. Very low numbers are coming back this year because of the climate change environmental situation, so they’re kind of waving the red flag.”

That year was when the effects of The Blob — the giant pool of overly warm water in the North Pacific — really hit Northwest rivers hard, with little winter snowpack and hot air temperatures leading to an early meltout and record low flows through summer.

I chronicled those impacts in a photographic survey of the Skykomish that summer, when on July 18 the river was flowing at a mere 425 cubic feet per second, 2,700 cfs below average and twice as low as the old record minimum for the date, set back in 1940 — extraordinary numbers.

PANORAMA MODE CAPTURES THE SKYKOMISH RIVER AT PROCTOR CREEK DURING JULY 2015’S RECORD LOW FLOWS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Over on dewatered Olympic Peninsula streams, WDFW biologists observed where wild winter steelhead redds had been dug up by raccoons to get at the eggs.

Unfortunately the snow drought was followed by major fall floods. The Skykomish saw crests of 70,000, 60,000, 95,000 and 80,000 cfs at Gold Bar in a six-week period, which didn’t do salmonids any favors either.

Eleazer said that it appears PUD is more focused on recent abundance trends, and it’s true, those don’t look good.

Where once there were enough winter steelhead to hold a coveted March-April catch-and-release season on the Sky, overall Snohomish-Skykomish Basin returns have dropped from 4,132 as recently as 1998 to 1,188 in 2014 to 372 in 2018.

He said that PUD was also “very upset” about this year’s May 25 start of the Skykomish fishery, seven days earlier in the past, a change that came about through WDFW’s rule simplification efforts which affected hundreds of flowing waters statewide and moved the traditional Sky opener from June 1 to the Saturday before Memorial Day.

In 2020, the Saturday before the holiday falls on May 23; in 2021, the 29th; in 2022, the 28th, etc.

According to Eleazer PUD didn’t submit comments on the late May opener, but Lowe’s petition states that as much as 43 percent of the Sultan’s wild winter redds are dug after the 25th of the month.

And Lowe says that outmigrating steelhead, coho and Chinook smolts “are vulnerable under a May 25 opener. This would not be the case with a mid-June opener.”

PUD’s crunching of 2011 WDFW creel data shows that king and steelhead catch rates spike from June 6 to 11, consistent with the early 2000s.

(PUD)

The mouth of the Sultan, where a popular put-in/take-out is located, also acts as a thermal refuge because the tributary dumps in water that’s cooler than the Sky, Lowe says.

Hatchery steelhead haven’t been released in the Sultan in more than a decade as WDFW moved away from off-station stocking, and the agency also scaled back the period that gold mining can occur between the site of the old Diversion Dam, at river mile 9.7 and which came down in 2017, and Culmback Dam to the month of August.

Before filing their petition, Lowe and utility managers took to print and the airwaves in early June rather than work with local anglers, and that didn’t sit well with Spada, and the whole thing still doesn’t.

“It continues to mystify me why the PUD thinks that they are in control of wild fish management on the Sky, and want to point fingers of blame at the recreational fisherman when they have made no attempt to be part of the solution, or work together with all interested parties for common sense management,” he says.

Eleazer told the commission that to his knowledge, PUD has not talked with the Tulalip Tribes, which comanage fisheries in the basin, and that conversations have been limited to the utility, his agency and the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Before voting to deny the petition, Fish and Wildlife Commission members debated whether to include specific direction to WDFW staff to consider the requests during North of Falcon.

Some, like Vice Chair Barbara Baker of Olympia and Kim Thorburn of Spokane wanted to, while others like angler advocate Dave Graybill of Leavenworth said it wasn’t necessary because it was already part of NOF.

Ultimately, an amendment to do so was included in the vote denying PUD’s petition.

NOF begins again in late winter, with multiple chances to comment on any proposals that come out of it.

Not So Fast That Fishing’s The Reason For Sultan Wild Steelhead Woes

The head of a longtime fishing organization is expressing disappointment with his local utility after it claimed summer angling is the reason wild winter-run steelhead aren’t recovering in part of a popular Western Washington watershed.

Mark Spada says that his Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club has “always had a good working relationship” with the county public utility district and has tried to work to improve fishing opportunities with them, but “(P)lacing blame on the recreational steelhead fisherman for a poor return is short sighted and unjustified.”

THE SKYKOMISH RIVER BETWEEN THE MOUTH OF THE SULTAN AND MONROE PRODUCES HATCHERY SUMMER STEELHEAD AND CHINOOK LIKE THESE CAUGHT ABOARD GUIDE SHEA FISHER’S BOAT DURING 2017’S OPENER, BUT A LOCAL UTILITY SAYS THE ANGLING RULES ARE ALSO IMPACTING NATIVE WINTER-RUNS. (THEFISHERE.COM)

Spada, who recently helped put on a kids fishing day a bit higher up in the Skykomish River, was reacting to stories in The Herald of Everett and on Q13.

Both pieces mostly shared the viewpoint of the utility, which operates a dam on a tributary of the Sky, the Sultan River.

While one reporter talked to a random angler on the water and the other to a regional fisheries manager, Spada felt PUD could have done a better job beforehand.

“I hope in the future you’ll look to work with the recreational community to find answers to difficult fish management questions, and not take the low road to incite public perception,” he wrote to Larry Lowe, a Snohomish County PUD fisheries biologist, yesterday morning.

A WDFW SALMONSCAPE MAP SHOWS THE COURSE OF THE SULTAN RIVER, WHICH DRAINS OUT OF SPADA LAKE AT THE SNOHOMISH COUNTY PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT’S CULMBACK DAM, POUNDS THROUGH A 13-MILE-LONG GORGE BEFORE HITTING FLATTER TERRAIN AND ENTERING THE SKYKOMISH RIVER AT THE TOWN OF SULTAN. (WDFW)

SPARKING THE SITUATION ARE DECLINING STEELHEAD RUNS and a recent statewide rule change that moved the opening day of fishing on the Skykomish from June 1 to the Saturday of the long Memorial Day Weekend as part of a WDFW regulations simplification drive.

In an email to Northwest Sportsman, Spada says he has fought for an earlier opener for years.

“The recreational fishing industry is in dire straits right now, and we need every single day of angling opportunity we can get,” he said. “(It) just makes good business sense to be open on a holiday weekend.”

With the scenic Skykomish the only summer salmon and steelhead bank and boat fishery of consequence in all of Western Washington this season, hundreds of anglers took advantage of the long weekend to get afield too, packing into the river’s accesses.

WDFW catch stats show that 338 were interviewed by creel samplers on May 25 and 26, including 259 at the Sultan River, Ben Howard and Lewis Street put-ins and take-outs, and another 79 up at Reiter Ponds.

Overall they kept 16 hatchery kings and 28 hatchery steelhead, releasing one wild king and 18 wild steelhead.

Not the world’s best fishing by any stretch, but those few wild steelhead are at the crux of PUD’s beef.

“We believe (angling rules) are impeding the recovery of these fish and they’re controllable, and we have to do all we can do,” utility natural resources manager Keith Binkley told The Herald‘s Julia-Grace Sanders.

PUD says it has spent $21 million of its ratepayers’ money to promote fish recovery in the Sultan River and that their monitoring shows 11 percent of the trib’s wild winter-runs are “still en route up the Skykomish” as of the old June 1 opener, and 26 percent as of this year’s late May opener, per the paper.

(The 2020 start of season would fall on May 30 because of how the calendar changes from year to year.)

THOSE SPAWNER FIGURES WILL RAISE EYEBROWS.

According to WDFW, greater than 95 percent of all wild winter steelhead in the Skykomish-Snoqualmie-Snohomish have already finished spawning by June 1.

Now, the Sultan is not the Sauk-Suiattle, home to large ice fields in the Glacier Peak Wilderness that keep those rivers colder longer and have led their steelhead to spawn later than any other stock in the state, but WDFW does allow that its fish do make redds later than others in the Snohomish watershed.

However, it’s unclear whether that timing has also been unnaturally skewed by cold water coming out of PUD’s Culmback Dam, which has been on the upper Sultan since 1965 and was raised 60-plus feet in 1984.

Up until recently, water was released “from the base of the reservoir, which is naturally colder than water near the top,” per the utility, but a modification now draws off and mixes in warmer surface water, making the river below the impassable dam more fish friendly.

COLD AND WARM WATER MIXES BELOW CULMBACK DAM ON THE SULTAN RIVER. (IMCO/SNOHOMISH COUNTY P.U.D.)

It follows on 2016’s removal of a PUD diversion dam that had blocked salmon and steelhead passage at river mile 9.7 since 1929.

Good on them for checking off federal dam-relicensing requirements and doing more for fish, but if WDFW stats are any indication, fisheries are likely coming in well below allowable impact rates.

NMFS allows the agency and the Tulalip Tribes to kill up to 4.2 percent of returning Endangered Species Act-listed wild steelhead during their hatchery-directed winter and summer seasons through this October.

This year’s native winter steelhead run came in well below forecast and it won’t be known for some time how many were impacted during the December-January-February season, but all of 1.9 adults died during the first two weekends of the summer fishery.

That’s based on the 19 caught and released, as required, and a standard 10 percent mortality rate on steelhead put back in the water.

According to WDFW, those nates were also mostly kelts — winter fish that had already spawned and were returning to saltwater.

(Scott Weedman of Three Rivers Marine in nearby Woodinville fished the opener and believes those wild fish were actually mostly summer-runs, probably headed to the forks of the Skykomish.)

With an estimated 1,000 back this year, the loss of those 1.9 fish amounts to a 00.19 percent impact rate out of the maximum of 4.2 percent.

A U.S.G.S. SATELLITE TOPO MAP SHOWS LOGGING INCHING TOWARDS THE STEEP CANYON OF THE SULTAN RIVER BELOW CULMBACK DAM. THE AREA WAS LAST CUT NEARLY 50 YEARS AGO, WITH DEBRIS FLOWS SEVERAL YEARS LATER DURING A LARGE STORM. (USGS)

NOW, I’M NOT SAYING THE SULTAN FISH AREN’T IMPORTANT, not for one second.

Having put in some pretty good growing-up years along its banks and in the hills above the paved end of Trout Farm Road, I’m more than a little partial to the system and I want to see its steelhead and coho returns blow up like the river’s pink runs did.

I’m also realistic.

Fishing seasons that have been going on for decades are not the reason wild steelhead are suddenly struggling in the watershed, nor keeping them depressed.

That’s primarily due to massive, long-term habitat alterations — logging, diking, developing — that have reduced spawning and rearing water for fish.

I know it’s not PUD’s land, but I sure hope they’re paying close attention to any proposed clearcutting above either side of the rain-prone gorge of the Sultan below their dam.

But then again, maybe it’s easier to take on minnows like fishermen and miners than the state’s massive 2×4 industry.

Then there’s increasing pinniped predation on outmigrating smolts and returning adults.

And let’s not forget 2015, The Blob year, which shriveled streams in the Skykomish system and probably is playing no small part in recent years’ low steelhead returns.

THE SULTAN FLOWS INTO THE SKYKOMISH. THE TRIB MAY PROVIDE A THERMAL REFUGE FOR FISH IN THE MAINSTEM LATER IN SUMMER DURING LOW-WATER YEARS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

EVEN SO, P.U.D. IS MAKING A BID TO TWEAK the fishing regs, asking WDFW to push its summer opener back to June 15, restrict the use of bait and limit angling at the mouth of the Sultan, per The Herald.

“We need to now, more than ever, be protecting these fish,” another PUD staffer told the paper.

WDFW’s ear is bent and they are mulling options.

Who knows what might come out of this, perhaps keeping the early opener above the Sultan or Mann Road Bridge, where hatchery steelhead predominate, and later below the mouth of the Sultan?

But that would also impact the summer king fishery, which is almost entirely between there and Monroe’s Lewis Street Bridge.

“That’s going to be the part that’s the biggest struggle — to protect steelhead and provide Chinook opportunity,” acknowledges Edward Eleazer, WDFW’s regional fisheries manager.

I don’t know how this one is going to end, but with how hugely important of a fishery the Skykomish has become in this day and age of shrinking opportunities, stay tuned.

SnoCo PUD Touts Fish-friendly Modification At Sultan River Dam

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE SNOHOMISH COUNTY PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT

The Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) continues to earn national praise for its efforts to protect and improve the environment. This month, the PUD was honored by the National Hydropower Association (NHA) with its annual Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters Award. This national award recognizes the PUD’s recently completed Water Temperature Conditioning Project at Culmback Dam, engineered to improve habitat for salmon and other aquatic life in the Sultan River downstream of the Spada Lake Reservoir.

IN THIS SCREENGRAB FROM A SNOHOMISH COUNTY P.U.D./IMCO VIDEO, PIPES DRAWING WARMER WATER OFF THE TOP OF SPADA LAKE BEHIND CULMBACK DAM ON THE SULTAN RIVER ARE SHOWN PASSING THROUGH BEDROCK. (IMCO/SNOHOMISH COUNTY P.U.D.)

As part of its relicensing requirement for the Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project, the PUD was tasked with warming the river below the dam to better reflect the river’s seasonal temperature differences. Prior to the project, water released into the Sultan River came from the base of the reservoir, which is naturally colder than water near the top. By contrast, a nearby intake tower allows water used for electricity to be drawn from near the reservoir’s surface, which is warmer.

PUD engineers designed a 715-foot-long solution. A new pipeline now diverts some of the warmer water flowing through the intake tower and power tunnel to the base of the dam where it mixes with the cold water. The result is a steady flow of water in the Sultan River with temperatures better suited to support future fish populations.

WARMER WATERS EXIT FROM THE TOP PIPE AS COLD WATERS FROM THE DEPTHS OF SPADA LAKE ARE RELEASED IN THE BACKGROUND INTO THE SULTAN RIVER BELOW THE DAM. (IMCO/SNOHOMISH COUNTY P.U.D.)

“These improvements will stimulate productivity, improve growth, expand distribution and add resiliency to the fish population, allowing salmon and others to thrive in the Sultan River prior to their migration to Puget Sound,” says Keith Binkley, PUD Natural Resources Manager.

The water temperature conditioning project follows a related 2016 PUD project that reopened a six-mile stretch of the Sultan River to migratory fish. Salmon were discovered in the newly reopened stretch within weeks, proof of the project’s immediate success. The 2016 efforts also earned praise and a national award from the NHA.

In March of this year, PUD biologists observed a healthy level of juvenile salmon making their way out of the river and toward Puget Sound, an encouraging sign the PUD’s efforts continue to have a positive environmental impact.

A WDFW SALMONSCAPE MAP FROM SEVERAL YEARS AGO SHOWED HOW FAR SALMON AND STEELHEAD COULD SWIM UP THE SULTAN RIVER (WHERE THE BLACK LINE ENDS) BEFORE THE REMOVAL OF A DIVERSION DAM AT RIVER MILE 9 AND CHANGE. SINCE THE OBSTACLE WAS REMOVED, COHO AND WINTER-RUNS HAVE TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF THE 6 ADDITIONAL MILES OF SPAWNING AND REARING HABITAT. (WDFW)

WA Fish Commission Tightens Mining Rules On Stream Stretch Now Hosting Coho, Steelhead

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

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission has changed the work times for mineral prospecting in and around the Sultan and Similkameen rivers to avoid periods when incubating eggs and young fish are present.

WITH THE 2016 REMOVAL OF A SLUICEWAY 9.7 MILES UP THE SULTAN RIVER, COHO AND WINTER STEELHEAD WERE ABLE TO ACCESS THE SULTAN RIVER IN THE GORGE BELOW SPADA LAKE (RIGHT CENTER), LEADING TO TIGHTER CONTROL OF MINERAL PROSPECTING RULES IN THE STREAM. (USGS NATIONAL MAP AERIAL IMAGERY)

The commission, a citizen panel appointed by the governor to set policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), approved the changes on Friday, April 20. The commission also authorized the department to remove 1 to 1.5 million board feet of timber from the 4-0 Wildlife Area in the Blue Mountains of Asotin County to improve wildlife habitat, restore forest health, and reduce the risk of severe wildfires.

Until recently, a section of the Sultan River in Snohomish County was open to mineral prospecting using a variety of equipment, including suction dredges, sluices, and high bankers, for more than seven months each year.

That changed in 2016, when a fish-passage project at the City of Everett diversion dam opened an additional 6.3 miles of the river to spawning salmon and steelhead, said Randi Thurston, WDFW habitat protection manager.

“Last year, the department adopted an emergency rule that prohibited the use of certain types of prospecting equipment in that area, except during August,” Thurston said. “This year, the commission adopted that new work window as a permanent rule.”

The new rule applies to the use of mineral prospecting equipment in the water, Thurston said.

In a separate action, the commission agreed to expand the work window for mineral prospecting on the Similkameen River to include the month of June from Enloe Dam to Palmer Creek in Okanogan County. That decision was based on a new study by WDFW that found no evidence of incubating trout or whitefish eggs there in June, Thurston said.

“Prospectors urged us to conduct the study, and they were right about the results,” she said.

Under the new rule, the work window for prospecting on the Similkameen River from Enloe Dam to Palmer Creek will extend from June 1 through Oct. 31.

For more information about mineral prospecting in Washington, see https://wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/mining/.

State wildlife managers plan to conduct the 4-0 forest restoration project this summer, but work may not be completed until the summer of 2019. Logging operations will be limited by fire restrictions and during periods of high recreational use, including deer and elk hunting seasons, said WDFW forest manager Richard Tveten.

STATE WILDLIFE MANAGERS PLAN TO THIN PORTIONS OF THE 4-O WILDLIFE AREA IN SOUTHWEST ASOTIN COUNTY TO RESTORE IT TO A MORE NATURAL OPEN PONDEROSA FOREST. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

In addition to the commercial logging operation, WDFW will also thin small trees from approximately 250 acres on the 4-0 property, he said. Project managers plan to burn logging debris in slash piles and will notify the public if they decide plan to conduct prescribed burns.