As public comment on the Skykomish River summer steelhead replacement program wraps up today, there have been recent developments in court and with a second federal oversight agency.
Last Friday, a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle agreed to “stay” the Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife over alleged Endangered Species Act violations associated with the new integrated broodstock program on the popular Central Sound fishery.
The order suspending the court case for the time being states that WDFW can’t release smolts this spring nor collect any more adult fish until it has full permission to do so from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
And from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There’s been a lot of focus on getting anglers to provide input to NMFS on the program, with 800-plus comments received during one step of the approval process and hundreds more pouring in for the draft environmental assessment review, which wraps up this afternoon.
But a USFWS OK of an associated element also plays a role and there is concern about whether that agency will complete its work before the young fish residualize, i.e., lose their interest in going to sea.
“If the ESA required actions are not completed well before April 15, 2021 by both your agency and NMFS that may very well be the fate of the Skykomish summer steelhead program,” angler advocate Frank Urabeck wrote in a Feb. 25 email to Dr. Brad Thompson, who oversees USFWS operations in Washington. “Accordingly, we respectfully request your office expedite your current effort to produce a [biological opinion] and incidental take permit for species under your jurisdiction before April 1.”
This morning, USFWS spokeswoman Jamie Hanson said her office is “actively working with our State and Federal partners and is on track to complete the consultation in spring 2021.”
That wasn’t specific enough timing for Urabeck.
“End of spring is June. Not good enough answer. We need to begin releasing smolts in April,” he responded.
Asked to nail down more definitively when in spring the review might be finalized, Hanson this afternoon replied, “We are actively working with our partners on the consultation who have informed us of the smolt release schedule, and we are committed to completing the consultation as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, the agreement that came out of U.S. District Court Judge Robert S. Lasnik’s chambers late last week includes language very similar to 2014’s WFC-WDFW settlement over another Puget Sound steelhead program.
It would allow the 56,000 smolts reared for this spring’s release to instead be stocked in lakes with no connection to Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca if the hatchery genetic management plan, or HGMP, is not approved in time.
This bookie lists the odds of federal approval as somewhat in WDFW’s favor, but close enough that figuring out alternative plans for the fish so they don’t go to waste is warranted.
So why is USFWS even involved?
Bull trout and marbled murrelets, but mainly the former.
In August 2020, USFWS was asked by NMFS to do a consultation on any potential impacts the new broodstock program and a reissuance of WDFW’s permit to operate the Sunset Falls trap-and-haul fishway might have on the listed sea-going char.
The fishway at the base of the impassable 105-foot-high falls below Mt. Index has been in operation since the late 1950s and has allowed generations upon generations of hatchery and wild steelhead, as well as bull trout, coho, Chinook, sockeye, pink salmon and whitefish to utilize spawning and rearing habitat in the South Fork – water they otherwise had no historic access to.
It’s also the facility where natural-origin steelhead are being collected by WDFW as, at the bidding of NMFS and due to a 2019 court settlement with WFC, it phases out production of Skamania-strain steelhead in the system after next year’s release of 40,000 smolts.
Plans call for the annual release of up to 116,000 smolts by 2024 in support of tribal treaty rights, to provide for state fisheries and help recover wild steelhead in the North Fork Skykomish.
Steelhead above Sunset Falls are not considered to be part of Puget Sound’s ESA-listed population, as they are the result of long intermixing of hatchery and wild fish, but the bull trout there are.
Per NMFS, fishway operations represent a tradeoff for bulls, affecting their migration and coming with risks from handling, but “overall” benefitting them by providing “access of the species to high quality habitat upstream.”
On a side note, such is the strength of bull trout population in the Skykomish and the mainstem it feeds that they are one of only three river systems in the state where the species can be harvested. Technically, the species can’t even be targeted in all other Washington waters.
As for that lawsuit – threatened in December and filed in mid-February – the Wild Fish Conservancy claims that WDFW illegally collected, held and spawned wild steelhead for the new broodstock program without an approved HGMP.
The court stay reiterates the state’s position that that is not true: “WDFW denies the allegations in the notice letter and complaint and specifically denies that there has been unauthorized take of ESA-listed species.”
The stay is in place until WDFW gets the HGMP or December 31, 2021, whichever occurs first. It allows both sides, as well as the court, to conserve their “resources pending final determinations from NMFS and FWS.”
The new summer steelhead program is part of WDFW’s QuickSilver Portfolio, an accord reached by Westside steelheaders of all stripes and anchored in no small part by consumptive fisheries on the Skykomish. WFC’s lawsuit has been dubbed the Duvall-based outfit’s “perhaps … most shameful lawsuit yet” because of the work that went into the consensus and the risk the litigation brings to Puget Sound’s last best summer-run fishery.
Public comment is open through 5 p.m. PST and can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Comments on the Environmental Assessment for the Skykomish River hatchery program and/or Sunset Falls trap and haul program.
Or mailed to:
Emi Melton NMFS, West Coast Regional Office 1201 NE Lloyd Blvd., Suite 1100 Portland, OR 97232