The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's recent decision to stop planting hatchery-raised, winter-run steelhead in most Puget Sound rivers for two-and-a-half years and in the Skagit River for 12 years was big news, and for good reason -- steelhead inspire great passion among anglers.
Media coverage of the decision has focused on disappointment expressed by some recreational anglers because, in their view, the loss of these hatchery fish will reduce fishing opportunity. As avid steelhead anglers ourselves, we share the concern about lost opportunity, but see the department's decision as a positive development.
Decades of data from Puget Sound rivers show the widespread planting of hatchery-bred, winter-run steelhead derived from a population in Chambers Creek in south Puget Sound has not improved steelhead harvest or fishing opportunity. As more hatchery fish were planted both harvest and wild steelhead numbers have plummeted.
And in recent years, the opportunity to even fish for steelhead practicing catch-and-release has declined dramatically. Winter steelhead fishing seasons in Puget Sound that used to extend through April now end by mid-February at the latest, leaving anglers high and dry. In our experience, it is the loss of fishing opportunity - not harvest opportunity, that the vast majority of recreational anglers are most concerned about.
When the planting of Chambers Creek hatchery fish began, wild steelhead were being harvested at unsustainable rates in sport fisheries. By augmenting the declining wild population with hatchery fish - fish that numerous studies have shown to have low survival rates and harmful impacts on wild steelhead through interbreeding -- these high harvest rates were maintained for a short period of time during which wild steelhead populations were driven even lower.
This is not to say that hatcheries are solely or even mostly to blame for the dramatic decline of Puget Sound's wild steelhead. In addition to excessive harvest in the past, habitat loss and high mortality of young steelhead in the marine waters of Puget Sound, are major reasons for today's severely depressed wild steelhead populations, estimated to be just a few percent of what they were in the late 1800s. Indeed, several Puget Sound rivers in Hood Canal and the south Sound, such as the Nisqually, have not had Chambers Creek fish planted for many years and yet their wild steelhead populations are in bad shape.
But the question we should focus on is not what deserves the most blame for the decline of wild steelhead and fishing opportunity; rather, it is what should we do to reverse the trajectory?
The key to both rebuilding wild steelhead populations and increasing steelhead fishing opportunity is strengthening wild steelhead in rivers with the potential to support abundant, fishable populations - rivers like the Skagit. This will require continuing the habitat protection and restoration work currently underway in western Washington, stopping hatchery operations that impede wild steelhead recovery, and improving the survival of young steelhead as the migrate through the marine waters of Puget Sound.
To be clear, we are not advocating closing all hatcheries producing steelhead in Puget Sound. It may be appropriate to use steelhead hatcheries as a life-support system for populations on the brink of disappearing or to provide steelhead for harvest in rivers with insufficient habitat to support abundant, fishable wild steelhead populations. Such decisions should be made based on the best available science, not a leap of faith.
On rivers like the Skagit that have the potential to support fishable wild steelhead populations, the state of Washington will best serve both wild steelhead and Washington's anglers by prioritizing actions, such as habitat protection and restoration and reducing marine mortality, that will rebuild the abundance and diversity of wild steelhead.
The time is now to make that shift.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Ed Megill of Bellingham is owner and guide with Cascades Flyfishing. Contribution to this opinion were Hugh Lewis of Bellingham, president of 4th Corner Flyfishers; Chris Johnson, a fishermen and conservationist from Bellingham; and Dave McCoy, owner of Emerald Waters Anglers of Seattle.