“Hatchery steelhead cannot rebuild a population,” thunders Kurt Beardslee of the WDFW-suing Wild Fish Conservancy in one article this week while another suggests that it is possible — and actually happening in Hood Canal.
Beardslee is quoted by the Seattle-PI (yes, it still exists) in a piece on the state agency’s decision to hold off on releasing 900,000 smolts this spring in hopes of getting the Duvall-based organization to the table to head off the lawsuit.
He acknowledges that his legal maneuver over WDFW’s lack of a federal permit for its hatchery operation may lead to the closure of sportfishing on the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Skagit, Stilly and other famed steelhead streams.
“There’s no doubt that there would be a number of rivers that there would be no fishing to allow these fish to rebound, but as a society we have a responsibility to our children and our children’s children,” he tells writer Levi Pulkkinen.
But in that other piece, KING5 reports that in a river flowing into Hood Canal, the number of spawning pairs has increased from a mere 10 in 2004 to 100 — and it just might be because of hatchery propagation.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Jacques White of Long Live The Kings tells me of his organization’s story airing the same day that word of Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit got out. “We’re not trying to steal their thunder. But I think there’s a disagreement between the scientists we’re working with and Kurt’s.”
Make no mistake, though, this is not your father’s high-volume, feed-’em-fries hatchery operation.
White details a very careful, small-batch, craft-brewing-like process being led by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Dr. Barry Berejikian, whom we interviewed for our January issue on the unexpectedly high mortality rate scientists are finding as wild and hatchery steelhead smolts navigate Puget Sound.
White says that biologists monitor three rivers, locate wild pairs, mark their redds and come back a month later.
Using hydraulic equipment they pump out half of the eggs and take them to a hatchery. Once hatched, the fry are put into rearing ponds at very low densities. They grow for two years instead of one — like at WDFW facilities — and then most are released to swim to sea.
But 10 percent are kept and grown to adults and released into their native streams when they’re ready to spawn — the subject of KING 5’s story. (The rivers aren’t named to protect against poachers.)
White calls these fish an “insurance policy” against, say, poor ocean conditions or other catastrophes.
He says Berejikian’s also careful to not allow “genetic drift” in his broodstock.
“They’re not wild, but as close as possible with hatchery fish,” White explains.
But even with few if any wild steelhead populations anywhere else in Pugetropolis exhibiting a similar 10-fold increase, White’s careful with the credit.
“Was this the result of a hatchery?” he asks, then continues with another question: or could it just have been good conditions for the fish?
While biologists perform this work on the three rivers, another four nearby streams are being monitoring as controls in the experiment. If improved ocean conditions are helping this particular river’s fish increase, they should also be helping steelhead in the others too.
Hood Canal streams are otherwise no longer stocked with steelhead, and retention opportunities for the species are nonexistent. Most streams only open for catch-and-release fishing with selective gear in summer and early fall.
While Beardslee seems to believe that removing hatchery fish from Puget Sound streams will make native fish bounce back, White has a different take for promoting recovery.
“If we didn’t intervene, it’s likely they’d go extinct,” he says.
In 1999 Long Live The Kings was given the task by Congress of helping the federal Hatchery Scientific Review Group look at practices across the region. He describes a dual mission, one of recovering wild fish and providing sustainable fisheries.
He’s taking a “big tent” approach — nine organizations are working on the Hood Canal Steelhead Project — and as an example of that, he says it’s important to work with the tribes. He points to the Lummis who, after encouragement to switch gear, successfully used selective nets to harvest early Chinook for an important ceremony.
In the battle against apathy over the natural world, White, Long Live The Kings and its partners prefer an active stance.
“When fish become museum pieces in rivers, nobody cares,” White says.
And even as others seem to want to let nature in this massively altered region inevitably take its course, others don’t.
“I want my kids to be able to come out and see this,” LLTK biologist Joy Waltermire tells KING5’s camera after releasing gravid steelhead to spawn in that Hood Canal trib.