WDFW Sued Over Puget Sound Hatchery Steelhead

The future of Puget Sound steelhead fishing may be decided by a federal judge.

Despite being dialed back in recent years in response to 2007’s ESA listing, on Monday the Wild Fish Conservancy effectively went for the jugular, asking a judge in Seattle to tell the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to stop raising and releasing hatchery winter-runs, which power fisheries on rivers from Deming to Fall City.

The organization’s lawsuit claims that WDFW’s widespread use of Chambers Creek stock harms Endangered Species Act-listed wild steelhead, Chinook and bull trout, and says the agency is releasing them without permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The suit asks that a judge grant an injunction until a permit is granted.

WFC alleges that steelheaders and the public have been duped about hatchery operations, and say clipped fish are impeding recovery of natives.

The Fish & Wildlife Commission was briefed last Friday afternoon on the pending litigation. A statement from WDFW is expected; a spokesman for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission said the tribes had yet to see the lawsuit.

WHO LIKES STEELHEAD YOU CAN KEEP? DEANNA ARPIN DOES, HERE PROUDLY HEFTING A HATCHERY WINTER-RUN CAUGHT ON THE SKYKOMISH RIVER AT THE MOUTH OF THE WALLACE. (WRIGHT & McGILL/EAGLE CLAW PHOTO CONTEST)

HATCHERY WINTER STEELHEAD, LIKE THIS ONE CAUGHT ON THE SKYKOMISH AND HELD UP PROUDLY BY DEANNA WILSON, ARE IN JEOPARDY FROM A LAWSUIT FILED IN FEDERAL COURT THIS WEEK. (WRIGHT & McGILL/EAGLE CLAW PHOTO CONTEST)

Similar lawsuits in Oregon have led to the reduction of hatchery salmon and steelhead releases in the Sandy River, though last month a judge in Portland denied a motion to eliminate this year’s release, a ruling that was hailed as a victory by sportfishing advocates.

According to documents from the Duvall-based organization filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, around 930,000 Chambers Creek-stock-origin smolts are annually released into the Nooksack, Cascade, North Fork Stillaguamish, Skykomish, Wallace, Snoqualmie and Dungeness Rivers. Fish are released from rearing ponds as smolts from mid-April through May.

That’s far fewer than how many were turned out back in the day, when Pugetropolis steelheaders didn’t need to make long journeys around to the Olympic Peninsula to find fish, but is also reflective of how much WDFW has pruned back its hatchery program in the basin since May 2007’s federal listing.

Chambers, which originated in a Tacoma-area stream, have been used for decades for their propensity to return early in winter, separating them from natives, and in the past few years WDFW has been specifically collecting adults for egg production before the end of January to keep the stocks apart as much as possible.

Fertilized eggs are no longer shared between rivers should one basin have a shortfall.

A look at release records from the early 2000s show many streams no longer planted — the Pilchuck, Sultan, Tolt, Raging — because those streams don’t have traps where managers can recover the fish.

Smolts are only set free from rearing facilities such as Kendall Creek, Marblemount, Whitehorse, Gold Bar, Reiter and Tokul Creek, and our article The King Dethroned: Cascade Steelie Catch Overtakes The Skagit For Good illustrated how that new release paradigm effectively shifted the catch off the 78 miles of the Skagit to the 1 mile of the Cascade.

Where once steelheading went deep into winter and even through April on some rivers, nowadays fishing is entirely closed on Puget Sound rivers by mid-February, and in most stretches as of Feb. 1, to protect the wilds.

And WDFW has also been hastily updating hatchery production plans.

In other words, the agency has been “doing everything in its power not to be litigated against,” says one observer keeping close watch on the situation.

WFC says that despite the ESA listing, abundance of wild steelhead continues to slide, down 25 percent since 2007 to 3 percent.

When the stock was listed, NMFS did point to hatchery operations, but also to habitat. In a sense, March’s landslide on the North Fork Stillaguamish can stand for the massive alterations to Puget Sound seen over the past 160 years, everything from armoring estuaries to diking the deltas, cutting off side channels, draining beaver ponds and logging the mountains right to ridge top, not to mention creating massive amounts of impervious surfaces, failing to provide fish-passing culverts, and filling ditches with pollution. And now we’re learning that something out in Puget Sound is gobbling hatchery and wild smolts.

It’s a series of cascading and intertwined events that have reduced the available spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead in the first place, effectively destroying their ability to recover, let alone maintain their numbers.

Those causes should not be unfamiliar to the Wild Fish Conservancy, which contracts to work on habitat, but the organization is no stranger to federal courtrooms either. Previously it went in with the Humane Society of the United States over sea lion management in the Columbia River, a lawsuit that was dismissed a year ago, allowing the three Northwest states to remove up to 92 of the pinnipeds annually. And recently it sued over salmonid release plans in the Elwha. Yesterday’s lawsuit asks that WFC be awarded court costs.

5 thoughts on “WDFW Sued Over Puget Sound Hatchery Steelhead”

  1. Collect the wild and improve there chance of survival.
    Improve the rivers stop putting new damns in….is it really that hard. If you remove a damn dont just rip it out like the Elwa.

  2. Welcome to the world of extremists substituting faith based science for the reality of fishery management in the 21st century. Don’t know why WDFW needs its dedicated fisheries biologists….just follow the simplistic myopia of the native fish Luddites (hatcheries are the root of all steelhead evil!). Hope WDFW studies the latest round of briefs in Judge Haggerty’s court.

  3. Everybody needs to contact the governor. This is not something that was put to a vote with tax payers & this is definitely going to effect our food source. Speak up & speak out!!!! This is bad, bad bad!

  4. I live on the Skykomish and fish it on a regular basis with my son and this is what we see. Preditory fish (Dolly Varden), stuffed full of hatchery and native smolt. Maybe the reason Wild Steelhead were doing better when the State was placing more hatchery fish in the river was because the preditors were filling up on the hatchery stock.

    “Poachers” They are out there and dont think twice about keeping a native. You can’t keep them off the river, not enough enforcement available. We have called on them before, only to find out that the one or two officers in the area are out running there tails off on other calls out of the area.

    “Seals” There are many of them waiting in the lower Snohomish River and the mouth. Lets cutt out the hatchery stock so they have nothing to dine on but native fish.

    Now here we are, the State has limited funds only to be drained by another lawsuit. Wild Fish Conservancy? If they get their way you can say good bye to a family sport and past time that is the fiber of the Northwest.

  5. Todd has it pegged. This will be the end of native fish. The imbalance in our rivers are not quite as bad as the imbalance in the brains of the wild fish conservancy but bad none the less. We protect predators. We limit numbers down to a pittance of what they should be. Then we expect fish to survive the gauntlet. At least we can come back when this poorly thought out plan shows its inefectiveness. These people think nothing of putting 500k into a ridiculous log jam that isn’t even in the water. Spend that on enforcement and bullets to shoot mergansers coupled with some seal hide collection and steelhead may survive

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