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.
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.