FISHING: State halts early winter hatchery steelhead release following suit

Staff writerApril 6, 2014 

Facing legal action, the state has announced it will not release nearly 1 million hatchery steelhead into Puget Sound rivers.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced Monday it would halt the release this spring unless it can resolve issues raised in January by the Wild Fish Conservancy and restated in a lawsuit the group filed Monday.

The conservancy, a Duvall-based nonprofit group, in late January filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the department over its management of early winter steelhead hatchery programs. On Monday, as the 60-day period ended, the group followed through and filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The group claims the department has violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act. By planting Chambers Creek steelhead, the agency is undermining the recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead, salmon and bull trout, listed as “threatened.”

The department had planned to release this spring about 900,000 juvenile steelhead into rivers that flow into Puget Sound. Those fish are produced at nine hatcheries and represent about two-thirds of all hatchery steelhead produced by department hatcheries in the Puget Sound area, said director Phil Anderson. Steelhead planted this spring would return to the rivers in 2016 and 2017.

AWAITING APPROVAL

Anderson said the agency is vulnerable to such lawsuits because the hatchery steelhead operations were not approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service following the ESA listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007.

While the department submitted in 2005 hatchery management plans that study the potential impacts on Puget Sound wild chinook salmon, the federal agency’s review of those plans was not completed. The state agency is nearing completion of updates to its steelhead plans to reflect recent hatchery improvements based on current science.

“We believe strongly that we are operating safe and responsible hatchery programs that meet exacting, science-based standards,” Anderson said in a prepared statement. “But without NMFS certification that our hatchery programs comply with the Endangered Species Act, we remain at risk of litigation. We are working hard to complete that process.”

Jim Scott, head of the agency’s fish program, said the department and the conservancy couldn’t reach an agreement on the state’s steelhead hatchery practices during the 60-day period. Scott said discussions will continue in the hope of reaching a settlement by early May so that the 2014 plantings can take place.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to quickly reach an agreement that will promote the recovery of Puget Sound steelhead and provide for tribal and recreational fisheries,” Scott said. “Going to court would force us to redirect our staff to defend our programs in litigation, rather than focusing on conservation and restoration of Puget Sound steelhead.”

The conservancy, said executive director Kurt Beardslee, argues fully recovered wild steelhead populations would fulfill the department’s mandates to provide recreation and recover wild fish.

“Contrary to popular belief, hatcheries are not helping wild fish recover. Instead, research shows hatcheries are harming wild fish and impeding their recovery,” Beardslee said. “Many well-meaning anglers are avid supporters of steelhead hatcheries, unaware of the harm that hatcheries are causing to the very sport they care so much about.”

FISHERMEN FRUSTRATED

The conservancy’s approach will not work, counters Mike Chamberlain, who works at Ted’s Sports Center in Lynnwood.

“They want to go back to strictly 100 percent wild fish production in Puget Sound streams. If that takes place, we will likely not have any steelhead fishing in any Puget Sound streams.”

Chamberlain pointed out the state already has curtailed its hatchery program, as well as fishing opportunities to protect wild fish.

“Even with all these restrictions put in place, and for quite some time, we are not seeing a recovery of wild fish enough to allow a fishery,” he said.

Todd Rock works in the fishing department at Auburn Sports and Marine and frequently fishes the Puyallup River. He argues sportsmen could catch more hatchery steelhead if rivers were not closed so early in hopes of protecting wild fish.

“Do we, as sportsmen, have a chance to catch those steelhead? No, we do not, because the Puyallup closes at the end of December,” Rock said. “We would be happy to take those fish out of the system, because we paid for them. But now we can’t even fish for them.”

The conservancy’s lawsuit, and the department’s decision to postpone the release, only adds to the frustration felt by anglers, Chamberlain said.

“They may have some good intentions behind them, but for most of us that see the bleak steelhead seasons we’ve had recently, this doesn’t make sense. This was one of the worst hatchery steelhead seasons I have seen in the 45 years I have been in the business.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@ thenewstribune.com thenewstribune.com/outdoors

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