Washington steelhead managers hope to save the popular Skykomish River summer-run fishery by switching to a local broodstock, a move that feels like a hail Mary but is also described as just about their only realistic path forward.
Under pressure from federal overseers who want the state to end production of Skamania steelies in Puget Sound streams, WDFW and the Tulalip Tribes have come up with a plan to replace the strain in the Sky with Tolt River summers instead.
The whole thing could take years to get approved let alone implement, but it’s also a testament to the lengths officials are willing to go these days for Puget Sound’s last consumptive steelhead opportunity.
“We’re looking for a way to preserve that fishery,” says WDFW’s Jim Scott, a special assistant to the director. “We know its importance.”
He says that switching to the in-basin steelhead will also help meet conservation and Endangered Species Act goals for the listed stock.
The good news is that at this point, side-drifting and spoon fishing for hot summers on the Sky seems unlikely to suddenly come to a screeching halt.
“There’s no expectation to eliminate the existing program until we build up the Tolt,” Scott says, “and there will be a period of overlap of the programs” before releases of the steelhead strain originally from Southwest Washington ends.
Several things are driving the move, Scott says, including last year’s new Mitchell Act biological opinion for hatchery operations in the Columbia Basin.
“NOAA informed us they would no longer permit out-of-DPS (distinct population segment) steelhead stocks in the Lower Columbia,” says Scott.
That effectively killed off use of Chambers Creek steelhead there.
Scott says that now-retired National Marine Fisheries Service manager Rob Jones dropped another strong hint afterwards about what was coming down the line — that managers should “just say no to stocks outside DPS.”
“Given the tremendous value of the Skykomish summer-run fishery, that created a great deal of concern in my mind,” Scott says.
Like the state, the feds are just as vulnerable to ESA lawsuits for incomplete or poorly permitted hatchery operations.
A July 21, 2017 letter (page 55 of this PDF) from NMFS West Coast regional administrator Barry Thom noted WDFW had yet to submit an updated hatchery genetic management plan for the summer steelhead program at Reiter Ponds on the Sky as well as Whitehorse on the North Fork Stilly, that those be reviewed with stakeholders and that the review result in the “timely development of alternatives to using segregated Skamania broodstock in the Snohomish and Stillaguamish basins.”
So WDFW along with the Tulalips and the ad hoc Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group have been casting around for potential solutions.
Scott suggests that there are still other though lesser possibilities, but one participant in PSSAG’s “gritty discussions” says this is it to save the fishery.
“WDFW has only one alternative, and that is to mine the Tolt River native stocks,” says member Mark Spada, who is also president of the venerable Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club and a longtime local angler.
The Tolt is a tributary of the Snoqualmie River which joins the Sky below Monroe to form the Snohomish.
“Without the Tolt fish, the summer-run program is done, despite being arguably one of the most successful hatchery programs ever designed,” Spada says. “This decision makes no sense, but the Sky smolt plant has already been reduced from 160,000, to 116,000, at the direction of NMFS.”
Two years ago, it actually looked even more grim than that. Rumors flew that Reiter Ponds summer steelhead output might be cut by around half — or the program killed off entirely.
A PSSAG meeting handout from early last month explains the Skamanias-for-Tolts plan more fully.
It involves pumping redds in the Tolt to collect eggs that would then be hatched at Tokul Creek Hatchery. Fish would be reared there, then released from there and back in the Tolt.
Fertilized eggs from first-generation adults returning to Tokul would be transferred to Reiter for rearing and release there and upstream at Sunset Falls.
Release of unmarked steelhead above Sunset Falls would cease and Skamania production at Reiter would be phased out as Tolts took over.
Skamanias, known for their fight, are a 1950s mix of Klickitat River and Washougal River steelhead and come from the hatchery on the Washougal.
They were once planted in numerous Puget Sound rivers, including the Dungeness, Green, Skagit, Cascade, South Fork of the Stillaguamish, Canyon Creek, Sultan, North and South Forks of the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Raging and Tolt.
But they have a propensity for interbreeding with native fish — steelhead in the North Fork Sky are “almost all Skamanias,” according to Scott — and so have been largely discontinued, leading to shrinking fishing opportunities over the years.
One big question is, if local wild summers are already Skamanias in part, why even bother and put the fishery at risk?
When WDFW was mulling Puget Sound wild gene banks in 2015, a presentation showed that native steelhead in the Tolt had been genetically influenced by the strain.
But according to Scott, new work shows that that percentage is “dropping” and that there may be different genes even between early and late spawners.
“Through careful selection, we hope to select for mostly Tolt summers,” he says.
Relatively speaking, not many summer steelhead spawn in the trib — a WDFW chart shows the escapement goal has rarely been met the past 15 years — and 2015’s drought probably didn’t do us any favors either, but a side benefit of the plan is that it could help rebuild Tolt stocks.
While it all seems like a long reach, Spada’s actually optimistic.
“With the science now available, the Tolt project has a good chance of succeeding, and should be the long-term answer,” he says.
And Scott too is bullish.
“We want to be careful how we do it, but we have real experience restoring runs that are very small,” he says.
He points to restoration work on Hamma Hamma steelhead, Nooksack spring Chinook and Stillaguamish fall Chinook that is “opening up paths we didn’t have before.”
Scott credits PSSAG members for their work on the issue, calling them “a great group of folks” with a wide diversity of perspectives.
Indeed, he cautions that not everybody’s on board with the general consensus to move forward with this plan, but “to the extent we can, we’ll address their issues.”
Yet more questions remain.
How long will it take for WDFW and the Tulalips to write a solid HGMP?
Without a local ally like former state Sen. Kirk Pearson to chivvy them, with NMFS’s workload how long will it take for the feds to review the document, get clarifications and ultimately — hopefully — approve it?
Scott doesn’t want to hazard a guess how many years it may be.
And in the meanwhile, will the Wild Fish Conservancy or other similar-minded groups use the lack of an ESA-required HGMP to sue WDFW over Skamanias, like they did with Chambers winters?
That’s all TBD, but Spada’s crossing his fingers WDFW’s gamble pays off because of the importance of the Skykomish River fishery to Puget Sound steelheaders.
“It’s the only viable summer-run program left,” he says.