BELLINGHAM - The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has approved a legal settlement that appears likely to curtail or eliminate sport and commercial steelhead fishing on the Nooksack River in 2016 and 2017.
The Duvall-based Wild Fish Coalition filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Fish and Wildlife on March 31, 2014. The lawsuit contended that the state agency was violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act by planting hatchery-reared steelhead in western Washington rivers that are also home to threatened runs of wild steelhead.
Under the terms of the settlement of that suit, the state agrees not to plant any more of its Chambers Creek stock of hatchery steelhead in the Nooksack and most other rivers until hatchery release plans are approved for each river by the National Marine Fisheries Service. That federal agency oversees protection of endangered fish.
The settlement was announced Friday, April 25.
Rob Jones, a spokesman for the federal fisheries service, said it would take months of review before state hatchery steelhead plans can be approved - assuming they are approved at all. That likely would be too late to plant the fish in western Washington rivers this season.
Before the settlement was reached, the Department of Fish and Wildlife had reported that it first sought federal approval for its hatchery steelhead plantings in 2005 but had received no response.
Jones said the 2005 plans were not adequate.
"They weren't good enough to get a permit," Jones said, adding that the state had submitted new hatchery steelhead plans with more biological analysis just last week.
"The state is aware that it's impossible to grant a permit based on how late we received their proposal this year," Jones said.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit sought to block the planting of a "highly domesticated" strain of steelhead originating in Chambers Creek, South Puget Sound. The suit said 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.
The lawsuit also stated that those wild steelhead populations have been reduced to 1 to 4 percent of their original populations.
After the lawsuit was filed, representatives of Lummi Nation and other tribes objected that cutting off the hatchery programs would deprive tribal fishermen of income and subsistence they had been accustomed to getting from harvest of hatchery-reared steelhead during winter.
Tribal representatives said they too wanted to restore wild steelhead runs, but the degradation of habitat caused by an ever-increasing human population made it unlikely that wild runs could support tribal fisheries any time soon. The tribes argued that the state's hatchery programs - developed in cooperation with tribes - made up for the loss of the naturally spawning fish that their ancestors once caught.
The steelhead that the state had planned to plant in the Nooksack this spring would have been expected to return to the river for harvest in 2016 and 2017.
On the Skagit River, the state agreed to more drastic measures: a 12-year moratorium on planting of hatchery fish, notwithstanding any possible approvals from federal agencies.
The only river that will continue to get hatchery steelhead under the settlement is the Skykomish River, a tributary of the Snohomish River. The settlement allows hatchery steelhead to be planted there because available evidence indicated that there was little interaction between wild and hatchery steelhead in that stream, said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy.
Asked about the impact on tribal fishing, Beardslee said the threatened status of wild steelhead runs means drastic measures are necessary.
"We do have to sometimes have short-term losses for long-term gains," Beardslee said. "If we kept doing what we were doing, it was going to harm our fishery. ... We were going to potentially lose our wild fish."
The state also agreed to pay the Wild Fish Conservancy $45,000 to cover its legal expenses.
"I think it turned out to be a balanced settlement for all parties," Beardslee said. "We definitely think it's a giant step forward for wild steelhead recovery."
Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Tribe, said tribal representatives are disappointed that Wild Fish Conservancy chose to file a lawsuit instead of working cooperatively with tribes and the state to resolve areas of concern. The Upper Skagit Tribe has been working with the state to minimize hatchery impacts on wild steelhead, and had drastically reduced the planting of hatchery steelhead in the Skagit in recent years, Schuyler added.
Among other things, Schuyler said the tribes were unhappy that the state had agreed to pay the group and its attorneys $45,000.
"It kind of brings into question the motives involved," Schuyler said.
In his view, the settlement will cost the state millions in lost revenue and economic activity that could be generated by harvest of hatchery steelhead.
Ending hatchery steelhead plantings now will likely mean no steelhead fishery in western Washington rivers for tribal and sport fishers beginning in 2016 and beyond, Schuyler said, although the state may eventually be able to capture wild fish on the Skagit and other rivers for use as hatchery brood stock to replace the Chambers Creek stock.