WDFW Lays Out Pugetropolis Steelhead Gene Bank Proposal At Meeting

CLARIFICATION: AUG. 1, 2015: The high gene flow amongst steelhead found by WDFW’s Ken Warheit and mentioned below was largely in the summer program, which used Skamania-strain fish. For more, see his presentation here.

Washington fishery managers last night laid out their case for creating wild steelhead gene banks in a minimum of three different Puget Sound streams, saying doing so wouldn’t necessarily end fishing in the systems, but the designation would mean no hatchery metalheads could be released in them ever again.

Not that many are receiving smolts these days.

With declining ocean productivity and changes in management before and after 2007’s Endangered Species Act “threatened” listing, dozens of previously stocked rivers everywhere from the Canadian border to the hook of Hood Canal out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca haven’t received the young fish in years — decades in some cases.

But with stocks and watersheds in varying states of health, not all rate equally as potential refuges for the species.

Annette Hoffman, who oversees fisheries in North and Central Pugetropolis, says WDFW’s goal is to come up with a diverse portfolio of streams that wild summer- and winter-runs will persist in well into the future.

“We’re not trying to discontinue hatcheries,” she told four dozen folks who gathered in an airy upstairs room at a community center in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood. “We’re trying to establish wild steelhead gene banks.”

A combination of natural and environmental criteria, public comment, discussions with the tribes, and more will be used to make a final selection later this year.

HANDOUTS FROM WDFW'S JULY 13 WORKSHOP ON ITS PUGET SOUND WILD STEELHEAD GENE BANK PROPOSAL. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

HANDOUTS FROM WDFW’S JULY 13 WORKSHOP ON ITS PUGET SOUND WILD STEELHEAD GENE BANK PROPOSAL. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Monday’s workshop marked the start of the public phase of what is the statewide steelhead management plan-mandated process to set aside gene banks in the region, a process that’s already occurred in two other parts of Western Washington.

The Sol Duc, East Fork Lewis, North Toutle/Green and Wind have been been designated, and fishing continues on those.

“They don’t mean the end of fishing, but fishing is dependent on the health of the stocks,” Hoffman stated.

Steelheading is different in Puget Sound because most seasons wrap up at the end of January, with terminal zones open till mid-February.

During the three-and-a-half-hour workshop, Hoffman, other state managers and scientists shared a bevy of handouts and slides, and had a dozen staffers from Olympia, Mill Creek and field offices along to talk about why Pugetropolis needs at least one bank in three sections of the Sound, as well as how the agency arrived with its list of recommended rivers in the first place.

The list represents a refined and expanded version from what WDFW’s Puget Sound Hatchery Action Advisory Committee, made up of sport fishing and other groups, came up with, but doesn’t include all 32 independent winter and summer stocks in the basin.

For instance, the mainstem Skykomish, the last best hope for consumptive steelheading to continue in the region, was not included in the proposal. Nor were the North Fork Stilly or North Nooksack; WDFW hopes to again have the federal permissions to release hatchery smolts on both before next spring.

In the agency’s initial findings, the most promising waters are the Sauk and Skagit which have abundant and productive runs, have experienced low gene flow from stray hatchery fish on the spawning grounds, are likely to self-sustain well into the future and are surrounded by high percentages of public land, which ensures strong habitat protections.

Deer Creek, a famed tributary of the North Fork Stillaguamish with perhaps 40 miles of good habitat, according to Hoffman, is preferred because of its unique strain of summer-runs. So too the South Fork Nooksack.

But the Tolt, which also has a summer stock, was rated poor because its fish aren’t very abundant, they have a relatively high risk of extinction at 25 percent — the highest so-far calculated figure for the North Cascades group of streams — and they’ve seen substantial gene flow from hatchery programs.

(For that matter, the Snoqualmie, which as recently as 2008 was pitched as the state’s “first wild steelhead management zone,” was also rated poor for its wild stock because, well, it’s not very wild, though is abundant.)

In the Central/South Cascades group, the Nisqually was rated “poor” in terms of likelihood of being able to self-sustain into the future. In that area, the criteria points towards the White.

And in Hood Canal and the Strait, the strongest candidate would appear to be the Skokomish, even if miles and miles of habitat in the Elwha recently became available again to steelhead, salmon and other stocks.

Among WDFW’s presenters were Neela Kendall, a research scientist, who talked about the status of the 27 winter and five summer stocks, and the various indicators that the agency looked at to make the above grades, things like abundance, productivity, spatial structure and diversity.

She said it was key to not pick just lowland streams or those that are primarily rain-fed.

BOB LELAND, WDFW'S STATEWIDE STEELHEAD MANAGER, SPEAKS ON THE PUGET SOUND WILD STEELHEAD GENE BANK PROPOSAL. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

BOB LELAND, WDFW’S STATEWIDE STEELHEAD MANAGER, SPEAKS ON THE PUGET SOUND WILD STEELHEAD GENE BANK PROPOSAL. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Steve Thiesfeld, the former Puget Sound recreational salmon manager now tasked with rowdy Region 6, explained that creating wild steelhead gene banks was a commitment WDFW made to NOAA-Fisheries in earlier hatchery genetic management plans for Chambers Creek early winter steelhead programs.

He added that hatcheries can help conserve stocks and provide harvest fisheries.

After Brian Missildine of the Hatchery Evaluation and Assessment Team spoke, it was up to Ken Warheit of the molecular genetics lab to talk about the risks of hatchery steelhead on native fish.

It was a bit of an eye-opener, actually.

He acknowledged that strays spawning in the wild can “drag down” the fitness of the latter stock and noted that the North Fork Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Tolt and Samish had seen high past gene flow — mostly with Skamania-strain summer steelhead — but in my mind he also seemed to suggest that there was more controllability, per se, these days with production fish than might otherwise be thought.

Warheit said that hatchery fish could on the one hand attract predators, but also provide a buffer; that once released from rearing ponds they spend just two to four weeks in-stream, which suggests that competition with long-rearing wild smolts is minimal (unless they decide, as a few steelhead are wont to do, to residualize); and that while competition for spawning ground is possible, the current timing for segregated and wild stock returns is wide.

He pulled up the Wikipedia definition of the word “domestication,” which has recently been applied to hatchery steelhead as a pejorative. His point was that with its Chambers steelhead program, the agency wanted an early maturing, rapidly developing stock with a separate spawn timing from wilds.

Warheit summarized by saying that steelhead in Pugetropolis vary in their PEHC — or, proportion hatchery effective contribution — and so they vary in their potential for being part of gene banks.

There are more considerations than a stock’s PEHC — not to mention pNOB and pHOS — and how much precipitation on a basin falls as snow as well as the percentage of public land therein that will go into making final decisions.

Discussions with those guys known as “the comanagers,” for starters.

The Upper Skagit Tribe was not very happy last year with WDFW’s decision to end Chambers releases at Marblemount Hatchery for a dozen years, and if the Skagit were to be declared a gene bank, that would mean that pursuing any kind of integrated broodstock program to produce harvestable fish — allowed by the settlement with the Wild Fish Conservancy — “would be off the table,” according to Hoffman.

Another WDFW staffer indicated that designating the Elwha — recently unshackled from two dams — would also be problematic with the tribes.

And the White and Skokomish happen to host successful supplementation programs run by the Puyallup and Skokomish tribes.

Along with tribal discussions, economics will also be part of the final equation. Pressed by one young gentleman on what exactly WDFW meant by that, Hoffman called it “an important piece to consider if you’re going to take a hatchery away.” Past catch cards and economic multipliers would be considered.

Once upon a time, the Skagit was king amongst Washington steelhead rivers, hosting dozens of guides and helping out small-town economies, but for all intents and purposes, last winter provided the last meaningful opportunity for some time to come, though progress is being made towards reopening the spring catch-and-release fishery.

On the other hand, Deer Creek is already a defacto steelhead refuge, with no fishing allowed at any time.

Overall, the evening was free of the over-the-top passions seen on social media, but there were still a couple sparks — what to make of the Nisqually River steelhead decline despite a lack of releases for 30 years; what constituted determining if WDFW’s Green River supplementation program was successful; and how many steelhead were caught in tribal fisheries and if that data is available.

As it stands, public comment is open online through Aug. 13, and it will be taken at three meetings over the next two weeks. Those are slated for 6-9 p.m. at:

Seattle – July 21, Phinney Center (room 7), 6532 Phinney Ave. N.
Mount Vernon – July 27, Skagit PUD, 1415 Freeway Dr.
Sequim – July 28, Trinity Methodist Church, 100 S. Blake Ave.

Already, The Herald of Everett has weighed in on gene banks with an editorial, saying that “Fishing enthusiasts likely will never see Washington rivers teem with fish as they did in the 1950s and ’60s, but programs like the wild steelhead gene bank might at least save the species and the culture of fishing that values it.”

For her part, near the end of last night’s meeting, Hoffman said, “I don’t know how this is going to turn out. I don’t.”

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