Editor’s note: Updated 8:05 a.m., Friday, December 4, 2020 with comments from Mark Spada, Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club, in a new eighth paragraph
A plan to save summer steelhead fishing on the Skykomish River is under attack as an environmental group says it will sue state managers for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act in jump-starting a new hatchery program.
It’s the latest lawsuit from the Wild Fish Conservancy against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife over steelhead in Puget Sound and it follows last year’s settlement between the two parties that phased out the decades-long releases of out-of-basin Skamania-stock summer-runs in the Sky after 2022.
Concurrent with that, WDFW planned to switch to using fish collected from a trap on the South Fork Skykomish below the impassable Sunset Falls, a mix of naturalized hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead. Unclipped steelhead, along with salmon and other stocks are trucked around 104-foot-high falls to the upper South Fork to spawn and rear there.
The goal of the program was to release 116,000 natural-origin smolts. Local steelheading proponent Mark Spada had seen it as a lifeline on the last best consumptive fishery in Puget Sound.
To that end, the agency along with the Tulalip Tribes last year submitted a hatchery genetic management plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service for review.
But WFC claims that in an “unpermitted operation” ongoing since October 2019, WDFW has taken at least 52 wild fish from the South Fork upstream of Index down to Reiter Ponds, a rearing facility on the mainstem Sky near Gold Bar, for ripening and that 30 subsequently died and that the agency now has 36 on hand.
The Duvall-based outfit says that that potentially harms wild steelhead in two ways: removing fish from the wild and impacting wild fish via hatchery releases and fisheries.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed at another attempt by the WFC to eliminate any hatchery fish in the Puget Sound rivers,” said Spada, president of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club, late in the week. “The permit process for this project is a year and a half into a two-year time frame, and the WFC is trying to stop it before it gets permitted. Hopefully, the state will fight this battle, and prevail in continuing with this very important sport fishery.”
WDFW had little comment late this afternoon.
“We received the 60-day notice of intent and are reviewing,” stated spokeswoman Eryn Couch.
Replacing the Sky’s Skamania’s with natural-origin summer-runs was part of WDFW’s and the Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group’s “QuickSilver Portfolio,” unveiled this spring.
The nut of the complex proposal, reached after two years of consultations with steelhead biologists and federal fisheries staffers, was “to provide the opportunity to test alternative strategies in different watersheds.”
While not everyone may have agreed with that direction, WFC was among the participants. Others included Spada, retired WDFW North Sound fisheries biologist Curt Kraemer, Rich Simms of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, Al Senyohl of the Steelhead Trout Club of Washington, Rob Masonis and Jonathan Stumpf of Trout Unlimited, Andy Marks of Coastal Conservation Association and representatives of Native Fish Society.
Puget Sound steelhead were listed under ESA in 2007 due to depressed runs, primarily a function of massive habitat alterations in the region but also dams, overfishing and poor hatchery practices. Ocean conditions have also been nowhere close to as productive as they were in the 1980s and before.
Hatchery and fishery changes before 2007 and implemented since, along with a 2014 lawsuit settlement between WFC and WDFW over early-timed hatchery winter-runs, have left the region’s steelhead fishery a shadow of a shadow of its former self.
Reeling from the cuts, WDFW has prioritized saving catch-and-keep steelheading on the Skykomish, but once again WFC has come with its fillet knife. It’s also lurking in the background of a local utility’s efforts to prune summer Chinook and steelhead fishing on the Sky.