UPDATED 3:15 P.M., JAN. 20, 2016, WITH ADDITIONAL COMMENTS FROM WDFW
Over half a million winter-run smolts will be released this spring if federal overseers meet their review deadlines and approve of new plans for Puget Sound hatchery steelhead.
So predicted a state fisheries manager during a House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee work session today.
“Are they high risk (to ESA-listed wild fish)? I would answer that emphatically no,” WDFW Fish Program manager Jim Scott told Rep. Brian Blake and other lawmakers who gathered for the early-morning update on where hatchery genetic management plans for the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Skykomish, Snoqualmie and Dungeness Rivers currently stand.
Scott says the agency has done much to reduce the impact of the Chambers, or early-timed, hatchery stocks on native steelhead. He pointed to a 70 percent reduction in smolt releases (from 1.8 million down to a proposed 530,000), a 78 percent reduction in release sites and the fact that eggs are no longer transferred between basins when shortfalls occur.
Acknowledging that in the past, off-station releases in some rivers have led to more crossbreeding between hatchery and wild steelhead “than we would have liked,” Scott said that the changes will lead to very low gene flow between clipped and unclipped fish.
WDFW has concluded the programs are consistent with conservation, he said, and now it needs the National Marine Fisheries Service to agree.
Scott told lawmakers that NMFS has a “target date” of April 1 for completing a final environmental impact statement on the steelhead programs, and May 1 for completing the ESA review.
Assuming NMFS keeps the schedule and determines the programs are consistent with ESA, “we are set to release early-timed steelhead in Puget Sound (rivers) this spring,” Scott said.
Later in the day, state hatchery manager Kelly Cunningham spoke even more surely. He told state Sen. Kirk Pearson’s Senate Natural Resources Committee that in discussions with federal managers, “they indicate we will have the requisite (ESA) coverage and we will be able to release fish this spring.”
Under the latest proposal, a total of 166,000 smolts would be let go from Reiter and Wallace on the Skykomish (down from a proposed uptick to 256,000), 150,000 from Kendall on the North Fork Nooksack, 130,000 from Whitehorse on the North Fork Stillaguamish, 74,000 from Tokul on the Snoqualmie, and 10,000 on the Dungeness.
Initial online reaction to this story was one of disappointment with the numbers, especially the Skykomish’s. Scott said that NMFS had been uncomfortable with increased releases there, so WDFW adjusted it back down.
This year marks a key moment for continuation of Puget Sound winter steelhead programs, as only the Sky has seen full releases since 2014 due to the lawsuit settlement between Wild Fish Conservancy and WDFW. The agency is depending on two-salts from the 2013 release returning this winter and other measures to try and be able to restart the other programs once HGMPs are approved. Otherwise, it will be increasingly difficult to keep it going in hopes of federal sign-offs down the line.
To help review the proposals, Scott noted that NMFS has brought in more staffers to look at those and the many other steelhead, Chinook and coho HGMPs that need approval, and that WDFW has even assigned an employee to help on a shared-cost basis.
He also said that the backlog represents “a very significant concern to the department, the Tribes and many of our stakeholders” because of the chance of third-party litigation.
Scott said that many fisheries are dependent on production fish and that without them there would be little or not fishing opportunities. Absolute worst-case scenario, a Washington without salmon and steelhead hatcheries stands to face a $2 billion loss to the state’s economy, he said.
The April 2014 lawsuit settlement provided two and a half years of coverage from further litigation by WFC on Puget Sound steelhead. WFC instead appears to be trying to draw federal resources elsewhere with lawsuits both filed and threatened.