A long-shot bid to open steelheading on a short stretch of the Skookumchuck below the dam for a large expected surplus of late-timed hatchery fish appears to have run into an unyielding brick wall.
With enough for broodstock purposes likely now on hand, angler advocate Frank Urabeck urged WDFW to allow a “very limited” fishery on the Thurston-Lewis County river starting March 1 to take advantage of roughly 2,000 clipped winter-runs forecast to return this season, but a top agency manager has bonked the idea.
“Opening hatchery directed fisheries at the peak of the wild run (March 1st) would be inconsistent with the management objectives and pre-season agreements with co-managers,” stated Fish Program Director Kelly Cunningham in an email Tuesday morning.
The entire Chehalis River system, which the Skook feeds into, was closed back on December 1 by WDFW and the comanagers to state and tribal fishermen due to concern over predicted and chronic below-escapement-needs returns of wild steelhead, a move that impacted robust hatchery fisheries too, and since then agency managers’ worries have only grown.
“Given what we are seeing in terms of the wild run, we are extremely concerned that the fish are coming in well below the forecast,” Cunningham said.
Managers had expected 26,336 native fish to reach the mouths of coastal rivers stretching from Naselle to Forks this season, about 600 more than actually made it back to spawn after state and tribal fishery impacts during last year’s “lowest on record” return.
Last week Cunningham hinted that “in-season actions” to close fishing on Forks and Willapa Bay streams could occur early this week following a meeting last Friday with comanagers, but when asked for an update on that front Tuesday morning he did not provide one.
However, in his email he did say that the situation with plentiful hatchery steelhead on closed rivers wasn’t unique to the Skookumchuck. Other streams in the same straits include the Humptulips, Wynoochee, Satsop and upper Chehalis.
“We knew we would have a lot more hatchery fish returning to the facilities. We discussed the issue with those who attended the Town Hall meetings leading up to the rules we put in place,” Cunningham said.
I noted that in a late November article: “The rules mean that early and late clipped fish won’t be able to be harvested.”
So far just one wild fish is reported back to the trap on the Skookumchuck, which Cunningham described as “most concerning to me.”
WDFW is cutting a fine line between eking out fishing opportunity around struggling wild runs and the rumblings of an Endangered Species Act petition proposal – none of the “crown jewel” coastal steelhead stocks are currently listed – but in being so conservative to also close hatchery-powered fisheries risks diminishing support for production programs and building apathy around them.
So what’s going to happen to the Skookumchuck’s excess hatchery steelhead?
“As we have done in the past, we are planting some of these fish into lake systems to supplement those fisheries and we are also providing surplus fish to food banks,” said Cunningham.
“We all know putting [them] in lakes, unknown to public, is meaningless,” he said.
WDFW’s plans also call for taking 847 fish to local food banks, which Urabeck also took issue with, stating that the hatchery steelhead “were not produced and paid for with license fees to provide donations to food banks.”
No, they weren’t, but our largesse going to feed local families isn’t the worst thing in the world either.
Another 200 hatchery steelhead will be transported above Skookumchuck Reservoir and 50 “non Quality sthd” will be used for nutrient enhancement, according to Cunningham.