Op-Ed

Wild steelhead gene bank can increase fishing opportunity

Trout Unlimited advocates that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manage steelhead fisheries as a portfolio of both wild and hatchery rivers.
Trout Unlimited advocates that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manage steelhead fisheries as a portfolio of both wild and hatchery rivers. Tacoma News Tribune

Recently, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife designated the Elwha and Nisqually rivers as “wild steelhead gene banks,” which means they will not be planted with hatchery fish. The department should be commended for these designations.

It was disappointing, however, that the department punted on selection of a gene bank in the North Sound. Ninety-one percent of those who weighed in during the department’s public comment period supported managing the entire Skagit River basin for wild steelhead.

For decades, the angling community has been led to believe that steelhead fishing depends entirely on hatcheries. Today, the sound’s wild steelhead are protected under federal law and in some of its rivers have population levels that will allow sport fishing, so it is time to move forward from the old way of thinking.

If the Skagit were managed for wild steelhead, a catch-and-release sport fishery would maximize fishing opportunity.

Consider the Skagit River, currently producing about 9,000 wild steelhead annually – equal to more than half of the wild fish in the sound. The Endangered Species Act limits activities that kill or harm (“take”) wild steelhead in these waters. “Take” can occur from fishing, use of hatcheries and habitat destruction, and you can’t fish once a listed species population has experienced too much take.

Hatcheries “take” wild steelhead when wild fish are removed to breed in the hatchery, when they spawn with wild fish, and when they compete with wild fish for food and habitat. In addition, tribal gillnetting intercepts both hatchery and wild steelhead, causing take, and because hatchery fish are the target and they return at the same time as wild fish, it is hard to control the number of wild fish taken in nets.

What does all of this mean for sport fishing opportunity? A lot.

These types of take don’t occur in rivers managed exclusively for wild steelhead, so more of the allowable take can happen in the fisheries themselves. If the Skagit were managed for wild steelhead, a catch-and-release sport fishery would maximize fishing opportunity. That is because there would be no “hatchery take” and by releasing – as opposed to harvesting – wild fish, fishing-caused take could be minimized, allowing for a longer season. A tribal gillnet fishery would, of course, kill wild fish, but it would be much easier to manage the amount of wild fish taken in nets in the absence of hatchery fish.

The bottom line is this: Where wild fish are Endangered Species Act-protected and abundant enough to provide a quality catch-and-release sport fishery as well as tribal harvest opportunity, managing for wild fish can result in a longer sport fishing season and less concentrated fishing pressure elsewhere.

Not every river in Puget Sound has an abundant, fishable population of wild steelhead like the Skagit. In rivers that don’t, it may make sense to operate a hatchery to provide fishing opportunity. That’s why Trout Unlimited advocates that the department manage steelhead fisheries as a portfolio of both wild and hatchery rivers. But in the Skagit, and in other rivers with similar habitat quality and consistent wild steelhead runs, there will be more and better sport fishing if we manage for wild fish.

Jon Luthanen of Bellingham is North Sound chapter president of Trout Unlimited.

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