A conservation group's lawsuit aimed at shutting down Washington state's hatchery steelhead program on the Nooksack River and other streams is provoking an outcry from Lummi Nation and other tribes who harvest the big trout.
"We need to have hatcheries to provide fish for everyone's grandchildren, tribal and non-tribal," Lummi Natural Resources representative Randy Kinley said in a press release.
The hatchery-bred steelhead provide sport for non-Indian anglers as well as income for tribal fishermen. In Whatcom County, steelhead are reared at the state's Kendall Creek hatchery.
Kinley could not be reached immediately for additional comment, but Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Tribe, said the hatchery steelhead are important to tribal fishermen, providing a chance to catch fish and earn some money during winter months when no other fisheries are available. Wild steelhead runs are nowhere near numerous enough to support a fishery.
The Duvall-based Wild Fish Conservancy filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle on March 31. The suit charges that the planting of hatchery steelhead in state streams is harming wild steelhead, which have protected status as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The lawsuit seeks to block the planting of a "highly domesticated" strain of steelhead originating in Chambers Creek, South Puget Sound. The suit says the Chambers Creek steelhead have been bred artificially in hatcheries since the 1920s. Those hatchery fish can harm the wild fish by competing with them for habitat, and by breeding with them and diluting the special genetic characteristics that make wild fish uniquely equipped to thrive in their native rivers, according to the lawsuit.
On April 1, Washington Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson announced that in response to the legal threat, the state would suspend its plans to release about 900,000 young steelhead in western Washington rivers, a total that had included 150,000 earmarked for the Nooksack. Instead of releasing the young fish into rivers that flow to salt water, Anderson said they would be released in lakes with no outlet to the sea, where they would mature into rainbow trout for sport fishing.
The Chambers Creek steelhead targeted in the lawsuit account for about two-thirds of all hatchery steelhead produced in the state, according to Anderson.
Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species. Steelhead are essentially rainbow trout that migrate to sea after hatching from eggs laid in freshwater rivers and creeks. They grow to adulthood in salt water and then return to fresh water to spawn, just as salmon do.
On April 16, attorneys for Wild Fish Conservancy were back in court, seeking an injunction from U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly to formally block the state from releasing hatchery steelhead in the rivers. The attorneys also asked the judge to order the state to tell Wild Fish Conservancy where the state proposes to release the young steelhead. The court document expresses concern that any released hatchery steelhead could find their way from lakes into streams and interfere with threatened wild steelhead.
The lawsuit states that those wild steelhead populations have been reduced to 1 to 4 percent of their original populations.
Schuyler, the Upper Skagit natural resources director, said the tribes share the goal of restoring wild steelhead runs, but that is going to take decades under the best of circumstances - and circumstances are far from the best.
As Schuyler and other tribal officials see it, the real problem for both steelhead and threatened wild salmon runs is loss of fish habitat and pollution from human activity. Ending hatchery programs would mean ending sport and commercial fishing for the forseeable future.
"The reality check for everybody is, the continued urban sprawl and development, and degredation of habitat," Schuyler said. "It's looking pretty bleak for the wild runs. ... The never-ending battle for habitat is a losing battle at this point. The human population continues to expand, and there's no way to curb that."
Schuyler acknowledged that planting too many hatchery steelhead in rivers does pose an additional threat to the remnant wild steelhead population in the region's rivers. The hatchery steelhead plantings have been reduced dramatically to minimize the damage.
The Skagit River once got an infusion of one million young steelhead, but that number has been scaled back to 230,000, Schuyler said. He also acknowledged that nobody knows for sure if those hatchery steelhead are doing any harm to the wild fish that are still managing to survive in the Skagit and other rivers.
"At the current levels, we don't know conclusively whether it's too much or too little," Schuyler said. "It's hard to say conclusively that the reduced amounts are diminishing the wild runs."
In a sworn statement filed with the court, state fisheries director Anderson said the state has invested about $1 million in the hatchery steelhead now in limbo in state hatcheries, and the eventual sport and tribal harvest of those fish would generate $7 million to $10 million of economic activity upon their return to the rivers in 2016 and 2017.
In an earlier press release, Anderson acknowledged that the state's hatchery steelhead plan has never received the required seal of approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service as required by the Endangered Species Act. Anderson said the state first sought approval from the agency in 2005, but the federal agency has not responded.
Wild Fish Conservancy argues that the planting of Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead still should be blocked by the courts no matter what the federal agency says, because hatchery plantings will always damage legally protected wild steelhead populations no matter how they are managed.