Tag Archives: Wild Fish Conservancy

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.”


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.


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.


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.

As Lummis Pitch Increased Chinook Releases For Orcas, Hatchery Opponents Dig In

In what’s billed as “a simple idea to save orcas,” the Lummi Nation wants to rear and release Chinook from one or more sea pens in the San Juan Islands.

The salmon would be grown to provide more forage for the starving southern residents in a key feeding area for them.


“The orcas eat hatchery fish. We eat hatchery fish. Not because it’s what we wanted — it’s something we’re forced into,” Jeremiah Julius, Lummi Indian Business Council chairman, told Bitterroot, an online magazine. “To think that wild salmon are going to come back in the next decade in the numbers that are needed to stop the extinction of orcas is foolish.”

A not unattractive likely side benefit would be more fish for fishermen who are also suffering the same fate as the whales, too few kings.

In the lengthy article, Jake Bullinger reports that the Lummis’ 2019 goal is to identify money for the project and places to park the pens.

The nation considers orcas to be their “relatives under the waves,” and the lack of Chinook is also being felt by tribal and nontribal fishermen alike.

If the Lummis’ idea seems vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s basically an echo of what WDFW and British Columbia anglers already do.

The state agency delays the release of some of its Puget Sound hatchery Chinook production to stave off the urge of the salmon to migrate to the North Pacific, providing the resident “blackmouth” fishery, while since 2017 the South Vancouver Island Angler’s Coalition in Sooke has released half a million smolts annually, and aims to put out 2 million in the coming years.

(Long Live The Kings also raises and releases 750,000 kings from Glenwood Springs on Orcas Island.)

“If there’s lots of fish out there, we’re not going to be fighting who gets the fish between commercial, recreational, and First Nations. And if we put more fish out there, there will be enough food for the killer whales to survive and thrive,” the coalition’s Christopher Bos told Bullinger.

How the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has become very invested in orca recovery, feels about the Lummis’ idea is unclear, as is whether there’s enough forage in the inland sea for more Chinook (though not in Deep South Sound, where anchovy populations are booming).


But it’s all a more “proactive” approach, in Bos’s words, than what some are pushing at this moment:

To be brutally honest, allowing the orcas (and fisheries) to shrivel by keeping their thumb on their best short-term hope we have in our radically altered environment — boosting hatchery production — because it “could undermine recovery efforts for wild chinook and the needed rebuilding of runs throughout their historic range, their size and age structure, and the run-timing that the whales evolved with.”

Per the rest of that Vancouver Sun opinion piece by a Wild Fish Conservancy staffer and others last weekend, increasing Chinook would just lead to higher fishing intensity and catch of wild stocks, and they say that mixed-stock fisheries should be closed and foraging areas should be set aside instead.

And yesterday in The Seattle Times, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research argued, “The only real solution for reversal of the downhill trend in Chinook salmon size and abundance, and for the southern resident killer whale population, is to recover the natural wild runs of Chinook and their supporting ecosystems as soon as possible.”

Yet even as hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on critically needed salmon habitat restoration, “At the pace we’re recovering estuaries, it will take 90 years to achieve the goals of the recovery plan,” tribal biologist Eric Beamer told KUOW last fall in a story focusing on Washington’s best, most intact watershed, the Skagit.


Inside fisheries have also been reduced “at great cost” as much as 90 percent, but wild Chinook numbers are just not rebuilding because they are limited by their freshwater spawning and rearing habitat’s capacity to do so.

Don’t get me wrong, there will never ever be a morning I wake up and say, “You know what, to hell with fixing this gigantic ass mess we’ve made from the ridgetops to bathymetric depths.”

My dying breath will be, “It’s the habitat, stupid.” (And I won’t just be talking about salmon.)

But the Only-this-very-special-magic-pixie-dust-will-work approach of the anti-hatchery brigade just isn’t helpful or realistic.

Ideas like increasing Chinook abundance, done right, will provide a key bridge to when the habitat can once again support the kind of numbers J, K and L Pods need right now.

Let’s get to work.

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WDFW-WFC Settle Skykomish Summer Steelhead Lawsuit; State Plans New Broodstock Program

Editor’s note: Updated 2:35 p.m., May 3, 2019 with additional comments from WDFW

The hacking away at Puget Sound’s last consumptive steelhead opportunities as we’ve known them continues, though there’s also a glimmer of hope to save a popular fishery.

Releases of Skamania-strain summer-runs will be ended in the Skykomish River in the coming years following a lawsuit settlement between a highly litigious environmental group and state managers, who are also making a separate bid to replace the fish with locally adapted broodstock.


The deal reached in federal court this week allows WDFW to release 116,000 smolts this spring and next from Reiter Ponds, ensuring fair numbers of returning adults will be available for harvest in the popular river in the coming years, but drops that number to 60,000 and then 40,000 in 2021 and 2022.

Technically, the agreement with the Wild Fish Conservancy would allow the agency to continue to produce Skamanias in the Sky afterwards if the National Marine Fisheries Service provides ESA coverage for the hatchery program.

But in reality, the feds are the ones who have been pushing WDFW to stop releasing the out-of-basin fish in Puget Sound waters.

In a July 21, 2017 letter, NMFS Regional Administrator Barry Thom told then WDFW Director Jim Unsworth he should look for “alternative” stocks to hold fisheries over.

So afterwards the agency considered using steelhead from a tributary elsewhere in the Skykomish-Snoqualmie watershed for a long-shot broodstock replacement bid.

For a blog I did last June, that plan to use Tolt summers was described to me as the best hope to save the fishery.

But the consent decree signed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington in Seattle by WDFW Director Kelly Susewind and WFC’s Kurt Beardslee and their attorneys this week, and Judge James L. Robart yesterday, specifically bars using any fish out of the South Fork Tolt for the next eight years.

Yet in a twist, another option has since emerged.

WDFW and the Tulalip Tribes recently submitted a hatchery genetic management plan to use steelhead collected in the South Fork Skykomish instead — “a new path forward,” in the state’s words, and one that would seemingly secure the program from potential budget cuts being eyed coming out of the end of the legislative session.

It still needs NMFS’ buy-in, but those fish are a mix of wild and naturalized hatchery steelhead that since 1958 have returned to a fish trap at the base of the impassable 104-foot-tall Sunset Falls just east of Index and have been trucked upstream.

They have less Skamania heritage than those from the Tolt, according to a WDFW genetic analysis.

Last year, 348 summer-runs showed up at the falls, with the 221 unclipped fish released into the South Fork and the 127 clipped ones not allowed to pass.

Edward Eleazer, the state’s regional fisheries manager, says that that “pretty robust” population will help WDFW reach production goals a lot more quickly than if they had tried to pump redds for Tolt steelhead eggs, rear them at Tokul Creek Hatchery, and then transfer first-generation returning adults to Reiter to build up broodstock there, like was being considered last year.

The proposed HGMP calls for the release of 116,000 smolts reared from natural-origin parents annually, “providing important harvest opportunities primarily for recreational fisheries but also for treaty tribes.”

It’s a lifeline of hope for the last best summer steelhead fishery in Puget Sound.

“Once the South Fork broodstock is established, it should provide stable, reliable, and perhaps enhanced summer-run fishing on the Skykomish for the foreseeable future,” said Mark Spada, president of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club.


It could also spread out the fishery so we’re not all focused in the half mile of water at and below Reiter Ponds.

Spada said that under the HGMP, smolts could be scatter-planted into the Sky’s South and North Forks, and that that “could provide a lot of additional angling opportunity.”

Both stems of the Sky and their tribs are paralleled by state, county and logging roads.

“There are a lot more options to expand the fishery,” confirms Eleazer, who sounds pretty excited about it. “Now we can recycle fish. Before we weren’t allowed to … There’s a lot of river miles.”

He acknowledges that it all still does depend on NMFS approval, but says so far the feds haven’t expressed any negative comments or asked for more information on the proposal.

Eleazer says that where in the future fisheries will necessarily become more “surgical” and adaptive because of ESA constraints, that’s not the case in the waters above Sunset Falls.

He says that the program will also provide a “key tool in recovering that wild population” on the North Fork Skykomish.

It’s another testament to WDFW standing by the Sky and its importance to anglers.

“We know that transitioning to a local stock is better for fish, and that the Skykomish is a tremendously popular steelhead river,” said WDFW Director Kelly Susewind in a press release. “People will be able to continue enjoying the experience here much as they have in the past.”

The news is not as good for the river system to the north, however.

The WDFW-WFC court settlement essentially ends releases out of Whitehorse Ponds into the North Fork Stillaguamish with this year’s 90,000 Skamania smolts let go for return in 2021.

With an HGMP covering the stock, production could resume, but again, that seems unlikely with NMFS’ directive.

As the two parties moved towards a deal, members of the Steelhead Trout Club of Washington were warned they’d need to “really work hard” to save the Stilly program, which produces fish for one of the Westside’s rare fly fishing-only opportunities for hatchery summer-runs.

It wasn’t immediately clear if WDFW has any plans to develop a local broodstock on the Stillaguamish like it does on the Skykomish, but Director Susewind said he wanted to work with tribal comanagers to “explore alternative fishing opportunities.”

“While we never want to lose a fishery like the Stilly summer-runs, saving the Sky was the highest priority,” noted Spada.


Last February, when WFC announced it planned to sue the state within 60 days, the organization claimed that continued releases of Skamanias into Puget Sound streams represented a threat to ESA-listed steelhead, but the real strength of their argument was that WDFW didn’t have an HGMP to operate the programs.

That has been a problem for several years as NMFS’s collective desk has been buried with hatchery and fishery plans to approve, biops to write, sea lion removals on the Willamette to OK, etc.

That WDFW has settled yet again with WFC will deeply piss anglers off, but without that federal permit, the agency is highly vulnerable to the organization’s low-hanging-fruit lawsuit racket.

The settlement also includes a $23,000 check from WDFW to pay WFC’s legal fees and orders the state to perform five years’ worth of snorkel surveys in the North Fork Skykomish and South Fork Tolt to count fish.

That effort is estimated to cost a total of $400,000, a not insignificant amount considering the agency’s $7 million budget shortfall in the coming two years.


This is the second time in the past half decade that WFC has targeted WDFW hatchery steelhead operations on the Sky and elsewhere in Puget Sound.

In 2014, it was over early-returning Chambers Creek winter-runs, a Tacoma-area stock that has been used for decades.

That lawsuit resulted in continued releases into the Sky, but a pause elsewhere until WDFW had an HGMP in hand, the end of stocking in the Skagit for 12 years, and a $45,000 settlement check.

Prevented from releasing their fish, hatchery workers at Kendall Creek on the North Fork Nooksack and Whitehorse on the Stilly had to get creative to save the programs until federal ESA coverage came through, rearing their steelhead to adulthood at the facilities and spawning them there, as well as reconditioning kelts at the former.

This latest WFC lawsuit focuses on a 1950s mixture of Klickitat River and Washougal River steelhead that came from the hatchery on the latter stream and nicknamed Skamanias for the region of their origin.

They were once planted in numerous Puget Sound rivers, providing decades of good fishing on 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 also have a propensity for interbreeding with native fish and between that and the 2007 ESA listing of the region’s steelhead, they have been largely discontinued, leading to shrinking fishing opportunities and releases — from 190,000 into the Sky in 2015 to 116,000 in 2017.

That 2017 letter from NMFS’ Thom states that a WDFW researcher concluded “that genetic impacts to the two native summer steelhead populations in the Snohomish Basin have been so large that they are now considered feral populations of Skamania-stock fish.”

Now they may help keep steelheading going on the Skykomish if the feds approve the state and tribes’ plan.

“The potential risks of this hatchery program are minimal compared to the risks of failed steelhead habitat protection and restoration measures or adequately anticipating and addressing the effects of climate change,” the proposed HGMP states.


Environmental Groups Sue NMFS Over Orcas

Two environmental groups are suing federal overseers on the West Coast over orcas, saying salmon fisheries off Washington, Oregon and California need to be assessed and reduced to provide the struggling marine mammals more forage.


“West Coast orcas can’t afford another year without bold federal action based on sound science to reverse their decline,” said Julie Teel Simmonds of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity in a press release out today.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington, follows on a midwinter threat from CBD and Wild Fish Conservancy to sue over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It comes as state and tribal managers are actually nearing the end of the annual salmon season-setting process known as North of Falcon — orcas and Chinook were actually part of the discussions today at a WDFW meeting with anglers and others in Lynnwood that is also being livestreamed.

Last month as NOF cranked up, a guidance letter from NMFS regional director Barry Thom told the overarching Pacific Fishery Management Council that his agency wanted to reengage with the panel about this year’s salmon opportunities.

NMFS last did that in 2009 and found that the commercial and recreational fisheries the council authorized WDFW, ODFW and CDFW to hold didn’t jeopardize southern resident killer whales.

But since then the salmon-eating J, K and L Pods have declined to a little more than six dozen, with lack of enough Chinook to eat, vessel disturbance, and pollution identified as the key reasons.

Thom said that for the coming years NMFS was also developing a “risk assessment” tool to possibly guide seasons based on their impacts on orcas.

But that apparently isn’t fast enough for CBD and WFC.

WFC’s Kurt Beardslee took up where he left off in his winter attack on fisheries, stating in the press release that NMFS needs to “acknowledge that starving killer whales and smaller and less abundant Chinook are merely symptoms of the problems created by harvest management that is fundamentally broken.”

But the problem isn’t that harvest management is broken.

The plight of orcas is because the habitat of Chinook — comprising 80-plus percent of their diet — in both freshwater and salt- has been inextricably altered over the past 175 years of settlement and development, and to expect prey specialists like SRKWs to cope with that is a pipe dream, especially when you’re also virulently against the only legitimate short- and medium-term bridge for the whales, sharply increased hatchery production, and wild king recovery is literally decades, even a century away at best.

In a time when cooperation is a far more productive path for endangered icons like our orcas, somebody needs to take these two outfits to task for their idiotic, recidivistic bomb-throwing tactics.


Group Threatens Lawsuit Over Puget Sound Summer Steelhead

Even as Washington steelhead managers have been making plans to move away from hatchery Skamania summer-run releases in Puget Sound, an environmental group is threatening to sue the state agency over the program.


The Wild Fish Conservancy announced this afternoon it was filing a 60-day intent to sue WDFW, saying the stock violates the Endangered Species Act.

The highly litigious organization based in Duvall says that programs operated primarily on the Skykomish but also the North Fork Stillaguamish and Green-Duwamish Rivers threaten five wild populations of Puget Sound summer-run steelhead and are driving them “closer to extinction” by spawning in the wild, reducing fitness.

WFC cites concerns that the National Marine Fisheries Service had in mid-2017 over Skamanias — a 1950s mix of Klickitat River and Washougal River steelhead that came from a state hatchery on the Washougal — but in response to that WDFW in coordination with its ad hoc Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group and the Tulalip Tribes last year came up with a plan.

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It would eventually replace the strain in the Skykomish with Tolt River summers instead, but would also take multiple years.

“There’s no expectation to eliminate the existing program until we build up the Tolt,” WDFW’s Jim Scott, a special assistant to the director, told Northwest Sportsman for a story detailing the plan, “and there will be a period of overlap of the programs” before Skamania releases ends.

At last check late last year that plan was still moving forward, so it’s unclear whether it has gathered enough momentum to now be a threat to WFC and thus is forcing it into yet another lawsuit against fishery overseers.

But what is clear is that the 60-day intent to sue appears to purposefully bump up against the timeframe this year’s smolts would be released from Reiter Ponds into the Skykomish, perhaps in an effort to get WDFW to come to a settlement like what happened with Chambers Creek hatchery early winter-run steelhead in 2014.

While it also wasn’t clear from WFC’s intent-to-sue letter what they considered the five populations of wild summers threatened by Skamania summers to be, earlier this year, researchers studying hatchery summer and wild winter steelhead in Oregon’s Clackamas River found the former didn’t affect the latter.

Former WDFW Director, NWIFC’s Chair Take Aim At SeaTimes Salmon-Orca Column

You know you’ve done something bad when Phil Anderson has to get involved.

Phil, in case you haven’t heard of him, is the retired director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and currently chairs the Pacific Fishery Management Council.


One day several years ago now when he was still WDFW’s chief head honcho I got an unexpected call from Mr. Anderson about an agency budget blog I’d inadvisedly written. Very shortly thereafter we agreed to a mutually beneficial solution; I’d spike my misinformed post.

This week it’s The Seattle Times that Phil’s reaching out to.

He and Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, have published an opinion piece in response to that column earlier this month entitled “In the great debate to save the orcas, the apex predator is missing.”

In it, author Danny Westneat and his primary source Kurt Beardlee of the Wild Fish Conservancy essentially argue that salmon fishing should be shut down to provide as many Chinook salmon to starving southern resident killer whales

“It’s easy to see how cutting the fisheries’ take in half, or eliminating it entirely on a short-term emergency basis, could provide a big boost. Bigger than anything else we could do short term,” Beardslee told Westneat.

Lack of Chinook is a key reason our orcas are struggling, but it’s not as simple as that black-and-white take on how to help the “blackfish.”

Respond Anderson and Loomis: “If recovering chinook salmon were as easy as drastically cutting or eliminating fisheries, we would have achieved our goal a long time ago.”


They point out that “at great cost,” state and tribal fisheries have already been cut as much as 90 percent and that shutting down fishing would “at best result in a 1 percent increase of chinook salmon available for southern resident killer whales.”

Loomis and Anderson point to a better approach than Beardslee’s kill-the-goose-laying-the-golden-eggs manifesto — cooperation across all sectors via the newly formed “Billy Frank Jr. Salmon Coalition.”

“There are no more easy answers,” they write. “We are left with the hard work of restoring disappearing salmon habitat, enhancement of hatchery production, and addressing out-of-control seal and sea lion populations.”

If you’re a cheapskate like myself, you only get so many views of Fairview Fannie pieces a month, but Anderson and Loomis’s response is worth burning one on.

And then check out what Puget Sound Angler’s Ron Garner posted on his Facebook page about this as well.

They’re both highly educational as we fight to save orcas, Chinook and fishing.

(For extra credit, I also took on that column here.)

Stopping Salmon Fishing Won’t Save Puget Sound’s Orcas

The idea that we can save Puget Sound’s starving orcas by just stopping salmon fishing for a few years once again reared its misinformed head, this time in a big-city newspaper piece.

In a black-or-white summary of a very complex problem, the nut was that we humans were shamefully avoiding looking at our own consumption of the iconic marine mammal’s primary feedstock.


Leaving that aspect out of the state of Washington’s recovery plan meant that, “We have decided, collectively though passively, to let the Puget Sound orcas go extinct,” it lamented.

We haven’t really, but nonetheless the prominence of the piece left leaders of the region’s angling community disappointed, as well as worried that it could lead to “knee-jerk” responses as Washington responds to the crisis.

And one has also asked the author to take another look at the issue with more informed sources to balance out the very biased one it primarily quoted.

THE ARTICLE IN QUESTION WAS a column by Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times last weekend in which he quoted Kurt Beardslee at the Wild Fish Conservancy.

“To cut back on fishing is an absolute no brainer, as a way to immediately boost food available for killer whale,” Beardslee told Westneat. “But harvest reductions are essentially not in the governor’s task force recommendations. We have a patient that is starving to death, and we’re ignoring the one thing that could help feed the patient right now. We’re flat out choosing not to do it.”

Columns are columns, meaning they’re not necessarily like a he said-she said straight news story, but what wasn’t mentioned at all was Beardslee’s complicity in the orca crisis.

So I’m going to try to shed a little more light on that and other things here.


AS IT TURNS OUT, WE HAVE BEEN cutting back on Chinook fishing.

Have been for years.

Ninety percent — 9-0 — alone in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, key foraging areas for the southern residents, over the past 25 years.

And yet so far J, K and L Pods appear to have shown no response.

In fact, they have unfortunately declined from nearly 100 members in the mid-1990s to 74 as of late 2018.

All while West Coast and Salish Chinook available to them actually saw nominal increases as a whole, according to state and federal estimates.

So I’m not sure what Beardlee expects to magically happen when he tells Westneat, “It’s easy to see how cutting the fisheries’ take in half, or eliminating it entirely on a short-term emergency basis, could provide a big boost.”

I mean, how is the 10 percent sliver that’s left going to help if the closure of the other 90 percent coincided with the cumulative loss of 25 percent of the orca population over the same period?

Don’t get me wrong, fishermen want to help too. Some of the most poignant stories I’ve heard in all this are angler-orca interactions.

But it’s not as cut-and-dried as not harvesting the salmon translating into us effectively putting some giant protein shake out in the saltchuck for SRKWs to snarf down.

“Each year the sport, commercial and tribal fishing industries catch about 1.5 million to 2 million chinook in U.S. and Canadian waters, most of which swim through the home waters of the southern resident orcas,” Westneat writes. “The three pods in question … are estimated to need collectively on the order of 350,000 chinook per year.”

Fair enough that 350,000 represents their collective dietary needs.

But not only do the SRKWs already have access to those 1.5 million to 2 million Chinook, the waters where they’re primarily harvested as adults by the bulk of fishermen are essentially beyond the whales’ normal range.

For instance, the Columbia River up to and beyond the Hanford Reach, and in terminal zones of Puget Sound and up in Southeast Alaska.

Pat Patillo is a retired longtime state fisheries manager who is now a sportfishing advocate, and he tells me, “If not caught, those fish would not serve as food for SRKWs — they wouldn’t turn around from the Columbia River, for example, and return to the ocean for SRKW consumption!”

“They already swam through the orcas’ home waters and they didn’t eat them,” he said.

WHILE BEARDSLEE IS TRYING TO COME OFF as some sort of orca angel  — “It’s like if you’re having a heart attack, your doctor doesn’t say: ‘You need to go running to get your heart in better shape.’ Your doctor gives you emergency aid right away,” he tells Westneat — he’s more like an angel of death trying to use SRKWs as  latest avenue to kill fishing.

Type the words “Wild Fish Conservancy” into a Google search and the second result in the dropdown will be “Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit.”

WFC is threatening yet another, this one over National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversight of West Coast salmon fisheries through the lens of the plight of orcas.

It’s not their usual target, which is hatchery production.

Hatchery production, which is the whales’ best short- and medium-term hope.

After WFC sued WDFW over steelhead, a state senator hauled them before his committee in 2015 and pointedly asked their representative at the hearing, “Are there any hatcheries you do support in the state?”

“There are several that have closed over time,” replied WFC’s science advisor Jamie Glasgow. “Those would be ones that we support.”

That sort of thinking is not going to work out for hungry orcas, given one estimate that it will take 90 years for Chinook recovery goals to be met at the current pace of restoration work in estuaries.

And it leaves no place for efforts like those by the Nisqually Tribe to increase the size of those produced by their hatchery to provide fatter fare for SKRWs.

I’m going to offer a few stark figures here.

The first is 275 million. That’s how many salmon of all stocks that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife produced at its hatcheries in 1989, according to The Lens.

The second is 137 million. That’s how many WDFW put out in 2017, the “lowest production year ever,” per the pro-biz online news source.

The third is 56 million. That’s how many Chinook smolts the agency released in 1989, according to figures from the state legislature.

And the fourth is 28 million. That’s how many were in 2016.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that 50 percent decreases in releases are due entirely to Beardslee et al — hatchery salmon reforms and state budget crunches play the strongest roles.

Nor am I going to suggest that they’re the sole reason that our orcas are struggling — pollutants and vessel disturbance have been also identified as affecting their health and ability to forage.

But with SRKWs dying from lack of Chinook to eat and Puget Sound’s wild kings — which are largely required to be released by anglers — comprising just a sixth to a twelfth of the Whulge’s run in recent years, surely the man must now have some qualms about his and similar groups’ anti-hatchery jihad, including against key facilities for SRKWs on the Columbia?

A FAR BIGGER PROBLEM THAN FISHERMEN for SRKWs is pinnipeds eating their breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Bloated numbers of harbor seals were recently estimated to annually eat an estimated 12.2 million Chinook smolts migrating out of Puget Sound, roughly 25 percent of the basin’s hatchery and wild output, which in the world of fisheries-meets-math science, translates to 100,000 adult kings that aren’t otherwise available to the orcas.

Unfortunately, managing those cute little “water puppies” is realistically way down the pipeline, at least compared to recent lightning-fast moves (relatively speaking) in Washington, DC, that finally gave state and tribal managers the authority to annually remove for five years as many as 920 California sea lions and 249 Steller sea lions in portions of the Columbia and its salmon-bearing tributaries.

By the way, guess who fought against lethally removing sea lions gathered to feast on salmon at Bonneville?

Beardslee and Wild Fish Conservancy.

“Given the clamor surrounding sea lions,”they argued in defense of a 2011 federal lawsuit to halt lethal removals at the dam, “you might guess that sea lions are the most significant source of returning salmon mortality that managers can address. Guess again. The percentage of returning upper Columbia River spring Chinook salmon consumed by California sea lions since 2002, when CSL were first documented at Bonneville Dam, averages only 2.1% each year.”

Three years later, sea lions ate 43 percent of the entire ESA-listed run — 104,333 returning springers.


Those fish were recently identified as among the top 15 most important king stocks for SRKWs.

Double whoops.


So to bring some of the above sections together, as CSL, Steller sea lion, harbor seal and even northern resident killer whale consumption of Chinook in the northeast Pacific has risen from 5 million to 31.5 million fish since 1970 and hatchery production has halved, the all-fleet king catch has decreased from 3.6 million to 2.1 million.

We aren’t the problem.

No wonder that sportfishing rep told me, “We were successful in getting the target off of our backs blaming fishing” for this blog and which Westneat included in his column (I do appreciate the link).

SO INSTEAD OF SHUTTING DOWN FISHING, what could and should we do to help orcas out in the near-term?

I think the governor’s task force came up with a good idea on the no-go/go-slow boating bubble around the pods. That protects them where they’re eating, and it doesn’t needlessly close areas where they’re not foraging for fish that won’t be there when they do eventually show up.


While I’ll be following the advice Lorraine Loomis at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission gave after similar sentiments came up last fall — “If you love salmon, eat it” — anglers can take voluntary measures themselves. Even if it’s probably already past the gauntlet of orca jaws, if it makes you feel better to do so, go ahead and release that saltwater king you catch this summer, like Seattle angler Web Hutchins emailed me to say he’s vowing to do.

Switch your fishfinder frequency from 50 kHz to the less acoustically disturbing 200 kHz for killer whales if they happen to show up in your trolling lane.

Pay attention to fish counts and if a hatchery is having trouble meeting broodstock goals, maybe fish another river or terminal zone, or species.

Follow Orca Network on Facebook for where the pods are so you can avoid them.

I also think Beardslee and WFC could, say, lay off their low-hanging-fruit lawsuit schtick (lol, fat chance of that) to give (furloughed) federal overseers time to process permits that ensure hatcheries and fisheries are run properly, instead of having to drop their work and put out the latest brushfire they’ve lit.

And I think boosting hatchery Chinook production is huge, and all the more important because of the excruciatingly slow pace that habitat restoration (which I’m always in favor of) produces results.

Yes, it will take a couple years for increased releases to take effect.

But the ugly truth we’re learning here is, we cannot utterly alter and degrade salmon habitat like we have with our megalopolis/industrial farmscape/power generation complex that stretches everywhere from here to Banff to the Snake River Plain to the Willamette Valley and back again and realistically expect to turn this ship by just pressing the Stop Fishing button and have orcas magically respond.

That’s not the answer.

In this great effort to save orcas, we the apex predator have in fact been forced to look at ourselves in the mirror, at what we’ve wrought, and it is ugly.

We have made a monumental mess of this place and hurt a species we never meant to nor deserved to be.

So we’re setting this right.

It is going to take time. We are going to lose more SRKWs. But we will save them, and ourselves.

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.


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.

‘Paperwork, A**-covering, Scary Numbers And Veiled Lawsuit Threats’ — Skagit Steelheading Still Up In Air

Frustrations are boiling over on the Skagit-Sauk steelheading front.

A group of anglers who’ve been a driving force in trying to reopen the rivers since 2013 all but threw in the towel on a spring catch-and-release season this year.


“Whatever happens next will not be good. One of our most litigious dot-orgs has got the Feds wrapped up in paperwork, ass-covering, scary numbers and veiled lawsuit threats,” Occupy Skagit posted on its Facebook page overnight. “If a season were to open now, it will be too short and concentrated with too many encounters. Best to not open it.”

But another angler who’s been closely tracking the issue is holding out hope.

“NOAA is dragging their feet,” replied Ryley Fee, “and whoever the organizations are who are impeding on our right to fish by threatening lawsuits ought to be publicized so we can all write them a letter and let them know how we feel about taking this resource away from us this year. I’m pissed off and angry, and need an outlet if it doesn’t open.”

The North Cascades rivers haven’t been open for a winter-spring C&R fishery since 2009 due to a series of low forecasted returns, then was written out of the regulations, but subsequently saw strong escapement though this year’s run is predicted to be a bit low but in the fishable range.

As for which dot-orgs might be involved in the stalling tactics, if one were to draw up a list of the usual suspects, it would likely include the Wild Fish Conservancy, which stumbled very badly recently when it made exaggerated claims about Atlantic salmon but ultimately was on the prevailing side in the Puget Sound netpen issue; the Native Fish Society; and The Conservation Angler.

The three either wrote or signed onto a letter calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service to withdraw its December pending approval of WDFW and three Skagit Valley tribes’ fishing plan for the system.

More pragmatic steelhead groups have offered qualified support for a season.

(As for Occupy Skagit’s concerns about “too many encounters” in a condensed fishery, that’s the reason the rivers will be monitored by state creel samplers, to gauge relative effort and success and modify any season if need be.)

The final 30-day comment period on the state and tribes’ plan wrapped up back in January, and ever since anglers on all sides have been waiting with bated breath for word from NOAA-F’s regional administrator Barry Thom one way or another on whether the rivers would open.

Certainly the feds have had more on their plate than just approving or sending back Skagit-Sauk steelhead plans this winter — there’s also been their initial review of the 10-year Puget Sound Chinook plan, plus involvement in North of Falcon salmon season setting and southern resident killer whale issues.

But the delays are rapidly narrowing the window on a fishery in the next month, and at some point we’re just going to run out of time, which is probably the end game for some parties, the unstated acceptance of others, and the increasingly grim reality for those who just want to get back on the water.

Atlantic Salmon Suck. So Does All The BS Around Them

I am not pro-Atlantic salmon. I am not pro-netpen. I am not pro-Cooke Aquaculture. But I am anti-bullshit.

My bullshitometer has been going off for six months now, but recently it just got too deep for me to tolerate any longer without comment.


The Wild Fish Conservancy’s hysterical claim last week that Cooke’s escapees from the Cypress Island fish farm are ridden with an exotic virus strikes me as not unlike what I have heard repeatedly from the darkest recesses of the Northwest wolf world.

It goes along the lines of, Those non-native Canadian wolves USFWS brought down are infected with hydatid disease and rural people are in danger of catching it from all the wolf poo piles now lying around the woods!!!

WFC’s press release announcing this supposed disaster came with a raft of citations, but afterwards they appeared to be the equivalent of weblinks to wolf haters’ usual references from Russia and whatever.

They were systematically batted away by WDFW in a strident response noting that the virus, PRV, has been known to exist here since 1987, is found in salmon from Alaska south to Washington if not beyond, and is carried by netpen and free-swimming fish alike. The disease that WFC fretted it can cause isn’t found in our salmon and only some penned Atlantics. Nor is it fatal.

Not unlike most of the vitriol that the rabid anti-lupus set hurls from their keyboards, it appears that WFC’s claim was actually a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

It was fear-mongering by the Duvall-based organization, plain and simple, written to make it look as if the state agency in charge of monitoring fish disease didn’t know what the hell it was doing and released at a key moment during the legislative session to chivvy lawmakers to an even more rushed decision on the fate of salmon aquaculture in Washington.

WFC hasn’t apologized to WDFW, nor is it likely — in fact, this morning, they doubled down with a new press release.

Yet what is likely is they’ll probably be able to leverage the widespread initial coverage of their claims and get away with the less-than-damning subsequent reporting, positioning themselves well in this world for coming jihads.

Again, I want to stress that I am no friend of Cooke, netpens or Atlantics.

The company could grow salmon that taste like Cool Ranch Doritos and I’d still turn my nose up at the flesh — a friend who caught one last month on the Skykomish claimed “it was good,” but to this provincial Northwest Chinook, coho, sockeye and steelhead snob, that meat doesn’t cut.


Netpens pollute. If they were new housing developments, we’d require sewer hookups or better ways to treat all that fish waste rather than let it drift in the currents or settle on the bottom of an inland sea that doesn’t flush itself very well in places.

And I’m skeptical of Cooke’s claims it was going to upgrade the aging equipment that came over from Icicle Seafoods when it bought them out. Would they really have if they hadn’t been caught with their hands in the cookie jar?

But this whole thing has been an embarrassment, and I include everything from the Canadian company’s August-eclipse-tides excuse and its shellfish-and seaweed-covered nets that acted as underwater sails and caused the catastrophe to the theory the escapees were just going to starve and die to Hilary Franz’s surprise Sunday morning termination determination on the Cypress Island facility to the latest pseudoscience from WFC.

For the last month and a half state legislators have been tripping all over themselves trying to outlaw farming a species that realistically poses little to no threat to our native salmon stocks, yet couldn’t get the one bill that would have assured that — allowing only female Atlantics to be reared — out of committee.

I can’t be the only one wondering, what exactly is behind all this? What big game is being played here? Who stands to gain the most?

And worrying, when will all this negative energy be focused on something that I actually do care about?