Wild Steelheaders Pitch ‘Portfolio’ Idea For North Sound Rivers

While Washington steelhead managers work to restart hatchery releases on the North Fork Stillaguamish, a group of anglers is proposing a broodstock program there instead.

Right now, Chambers Creek-stock smolts are being raised at Whitehorse Ponds west of Darrington to support retention fisheries, but Wild Steelheaders United would use native fish to try and rebuild the Stilly’s winter-run stocks.

ON THE STILLAGUAMISH RIVER, INSTEAD OF CHAMBERS STOCK STEELHEAD, LIKE THESE TWO HELD BY ADAM PEREZ, WILD STEELHEADERS UNITED IS PROPOSING A LOCAL BROODSTOCK PROGRAM, WHICH IS PART OF THE STATEWIDE STEELHEAD MANAGEMENT PLAN. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)
ON THE STILLAGUAMISH RIVER, INSTEAD OF CHAMBERS STOCK STEELHEAD, LIKE THESE TWO HELD BY ADAM PEREZ, WILD STEELHEADERS UNITED IS PROPOSING A LOCAL BROODSTOCK PROGRAM, WHICH IS PART OF THE STATEWIDE STEELHEAD MANAGEMENT PLAN. PEREZ CAUGHT THE HATCHERY FISH LAST WINTER ON CERISE JIGS. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

The idea is part of a larger “portfolio” approach that was unveiled this week by the group, which is backed by Trout Unlimited, for steelhead management in Snohomish and Skagit Counties in the future.

(The Snoqualmie, Green, Dungeness and Nooksack Rivers were not addressed.)

Wild Steelheaders United would set the Skagit River basin aside exclusively for wild steelhead, and “in the spirit of compromise,” support continued hatchery releases on the Skykomish.

“If success is defined as the number of hatchery fish caught in fisheries, this is the most successful (and most cost-effective) winter steelhead hatchery of its type in Puget Sound,” says WSU’s John McMillan about Reiter Ponds and Wallace.

McMillan says that the overall proposal would provide catch-and-release and retention opportunities, while also aligning with work to recover steelhead and serve as an experiment for both “wild fish zealots and hatchery fish devotees” to see what works for fisheries and conservation.

It would require approval from state, tribal and federal managers and buy-in from anglers — no small order.

But it would also set a clear course for the future of steelheading in a part of Washington where the sport seems as adrift as a bobber caught in the eddy of a midstream boulder.

In 2007, Puget Sound steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Since then, the number of smolt release sites has shrunk by four-fifths, and fisheries for returning adult steelhead are largely concentrated around the terminal zones — Kendall Creek, Marblemount, Whitehorse, Reiter, Wallace and Tokul.

There haven’t been any spring catch-and-release seasons for big wild fish in half a decade. While some anglers are working to reinstate them, Pugetropolis steelheaders must instead head for the Olympic Peninsula, Southwest Washington or Oregon Coast to fulfill their jones.

Only one stream has seen smolt releases the last two springs, a result of the 2014 Wild Fish Conservancy-WDFW lawsuit settlement.

And if the state agency gets the National Marine Fishery Service’s approval (Wednesday there were good signs), only 530,000 smolts — just a third of 10 years ago — would be let loose into the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Snohomish system and Dungeness this spring.

If WDFW doesn’t get the OK, well … it may be all but game over for consumptive steelheading on some of those.

Also in play, final decisions on which streams in the basin will be set aside as wild steelhead gene banks. That’s been slow in coming because of how contentious the issue is amongst anglers — especially as it pertains to the Skagit — and the need to involve the comanagers.

To a degree, Wild Steelheaders United’s proposal does open a bit of a window on that last front.

The WFC settlement barred the release of Chambers winter-run smolts on the Cascade-Skagit for 12 years, with the caveat that a broodstock program might be explored.

The Upper Skagit Tribe was very unhappy over the agreement, but WSU’s proposal specifically addresses tribal fisheries.

“It has by far the largest wild steelhead population of all Puget Sound rivers, roughly 9,000, which is more than the Hoh and Queets Rivers on the Olympic Peninsula combined,” McMillan writes. “It has a lot of relatively high-quality habitat that can support a fishable (catch-and-release) wild steelhead population and tribal harvest consistent with the tribes’ treaty rights.”

It takes some pretty big Corkies to put that out there because of how tetchy we anglers are about treaty harvest and our reverence for holier-than-the-Pope wild steelhead.

As for a Stillaguamish broodstock program, it is an option under WDFW’s statewide steelhead management plan, but it’s unclear if it could get off the ground within our lifetime.

Because of the ESA listing, collecting wild fish from a river that’s also not meeting escapement (this year’s forecast is 1,879, but the goal is 3,059) would require permission from NMFS, which last time we checked (Wednesday afternoon) had a backlog of hatchery genetic management plans to review from here almost to the continental divide.

It would also need to survive the all-but-inevitable Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit — no doubt Duvall’s drafting an intent-to-sue notice over the mere suggestions WSU put forth.

Then there’s the question of cost — typically, it takes twice as long for wild smolts to get up to size as their clipped counterparts, and they don’t do too well in hatchery raceways.

But maybe funding from the new steelhead license plate (if legislators approve) could chip in for that.

If the idea did eventually get the go-ahead, it would serve as a test case with ramifications.

“This would enable us to evaluate whether such a hatchery program could be effective for this conservation purpose. To date, there is thin evidence that this is the case, but it could be tried on an experimental basis,” says WSU’s McMillan.

Broodstock programs in a trio of Hood Canal streams showed initial promise at rebuilding stocks, but in the Stillaguamish basin, unless accompanied by massive fish-friendly habitat alterations, it might not result in any more steelhead in the river, which may already be rearing as many as it can.

That and the question of what to do with the Skagit aside, at the very least, Wild Steelheaders United’s proposal should be lauded for recognizing the importance of hatchery production on the Skykomish, the last best hope for it in Pugetropolis.

(It must be noted that McMillain maintains there are “serious genetic and ecological problems” with hatchery programs like those on the Sky, though earlier this week, WDFW Fish Program manager Jim Scott told a state House committee “emphatically no” they don’t pose a high risk to ESA fish.)

That is helpful because right now there is a little too much division amongst us. Partially that is driven by gear preferences and wild steelheaders being lumped in with WFC. Partially it’s disagreement over hatchery fish and whether rivers without them can ever return to former production.

Moving forward on North Sound steelhead, there’s a clear need for compromise solutions.

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