Broodstock protection forces closure of sport steelheading

The Nooksack River and Whatcom Creek will close to all recreational (personal use) fishing Tuesday, Dec. 16. An emergency regulation to that effect was issued by the state fish and wildlife department Thursday, Dec. 11.

The order applies to all Nooksack waters from the Lummi Nation boundary near Marine Drive upstream to the forks together with the lower reaches of forks that are now open for gamefish and trout angling under the permanent regulations. On Whatcom Creek, the order covers the intertidal estuary including Maritime Heritage Center grounds upstream to the Woburn Street bridge.

Language in the emergency regulation states it will remain in effect ‘until further notice’ and when broodstock needs are met fishing can resume under permanent rules through either the Jan. 31 (most of the Nooksack), Feb. 15 (lower North Fork) or Feb. 28 (Whatcom Creek) regular closing dates.

State managers say the shutdown of non-treaty fishing is necessary to protect in the river and facilitate the return of hatchery-origin (marked) steelhead to Kendall Creek and Whatcom Creek hatcheries where they are needed for spawning to continue the hatchery program.

The Nooksack Tribe adopted tribal fishery regulation 14-41 Friday, Dec. 12 that will allow its members to fish for steelhead commercially and for subsistence a total of 17 days in five separate openings between Monday, Dec. 15 and Thursday, Jan. 15.

The Nooksack Tribe’s announced schedule included Dec. 15-17, Dec. 22-24, Dec. 29-31, Jan. 5-9 and Jan. 12-15.

Also on Friday, Dec. 12, Lummi Nation posted on its fisheries hotline a steelhead fishery regulation announcing a commercial, ceremonial and subsistence opening for Monday, Dec. 15 though Wednesday, Dec. 17. No other dates were mentioned.

In past years treaty fishing targeting steelhead took place seven days a week in the Nooksack from the end of the directed chum fishery to either the middle or end of January.

In both treaty fisheries, tribal participants must by rule obtain a permit issued by their respective natural resources departments. They’re also required to submit all steelhead catches for sampling, specifically evaluation of the ratio of clipped (hatchery) to non-clipped (wild) since the Nooksack’s wild winter-run population is among the Puget Sound steelhead stocks listed as threatened and protected by federal law.

Treaty fishers also must report their catches regardless of end use (sold commercially or kept for subsistence) on fish tickets that are filed with their respective management offices. Sport anglers when seasons are open are similarly required to record kept steelhead on catch record cards.

The Nooksack Tribe’s regulation states that this fishery is justified because there is a ‘harvestable surplus’ of returning adult hatchery steelhead as noted in the 2014-15 Nooksack Steelhead Harvest Management Plan that was agreed to by both tribes and the state.

The tribes are entitled by federal court ruling to have the opportunity to catch up to 50 percent of the harvestable surplus of both hatchery and wild stocks of salmon and steelhead. They may govern their fisheries outside the jurisdiction of the state, but must come to agreement with the fish and wildlife department each year on certain management terms including run-sizes, wild and hatchery stock escapement needs and fishery impacts to ESA protected species.

State hatchery program managers are proceeding with Nooksack broodstock collection, spawning and hatching and raising of this year’s batch of hatchery steelhead pending the potential issuance of a federal ESA permit that will sanction their release into the river. Juvenile steelhead produced from this winter’s spawn would be let go in May 2016.

In an out-of-court settlement in April 2014 of a federal suit brought by Duvall-based Wild Fish Conservancy, the state agreed, in part, not to release hatchery steelhead smolts in Puget Sound basin streams until it obtained permits from NOAA Fisheries under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act to do so.

A second, older group of hatchery steelhead youngsters from last January’s spawning at Kendall Creek Hatchery have been marked in anticipation of the federal authorization and on their current timetable are expected to be release next May.

Application for approval of the fish and wildlife department’s hatchery genetics management plan that would govern and control the state’s Nooksack hatchery steelhead program in the future is in the hands of NOAA Fisheries regional administrators, who say they will be able to make a decision on the issuance of the needed authority before May.

Though the permit is not yet in hand, state managers say that going ahead with production and rearing of the two age groups of hatchery steelhead is essential to maintaining, presuming their release is legally sanctioned, continuity of adult fish returns in the coming several years.

Wild or native Nooksack winter-run steelhead stocks, now under state and federal ESA protection, currently may not be domesticated to produce supplementation fish for harvest.

If returns of legacy hatchery-origin adults dwindle or stop, there currently are few other provisions for maintaining the program, hatchery production would likely discontinue and the river closed to winter fishing.

Even if the needed federal authority is not forthcoming, these steelhead, being at their essence rainbow trout, still can be used in stocking selected freshwater bodies throughout Washington from which they cannot escape, so investment in them now would not be entirely in vain.

As of Tuesday, Dec. 9 Kendall Creek had already received 25 adult hatchery fish or 17 percent of the target spawner recruitment of 143 adult fish. That's the highest number of returning hatchery steelhead for this same time in the past 10 years.

To date, Whatcom Creek Hatchery has reported receiving four adult hatchery steelhead.

The closures on the two streams will remain in effect until the recruitment goal is attained at which time fishing can resume, say state officials.

Anglers intent on fishing the Nooksack should check the state fish and wildlife department's emergency regulations Web portal: https://fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules/rules_current_order_by_date.j for timely updates.

Permanent regulations for the Nooksack River and Whatcom Creek are found on pages 22-24 of the Fish Washington sportfishing pamphlet.


Steve Martin’s 18.89-pound blackmouth, landed on the second and last day of the 5th annual Resurrection Derby, edged out by just under 11 ounces runner-up Pete Nelson’s chinook salmon netting Martin, who hails from Bellingham, the event’s $10,000 first prize.

Nelson’s 18.22-pound winter king held on to the second rung of the Dec. 5-6 contest’s leaderboard garnering the Shaw Island past derby champion the $2,500 second place prize.

Bob Havland of Everson took the third place cash of $1,500 for a 17.27-pound chinook.

Derby organizer Chris Long of Jolly Mon Charters reports that the more than 300 participants in this year’s derby landed 413 marked or hatchery-origin chinook salmon in the two-day contest that’s the last formal angling set-to of 2014 and the first of the winter blackmouth fishing season in Marine Area 7.

The Resurrection Derby, so-named for its intent to rekindle December derby’s of old, is a limited-entry saltwater angling contest with an entry fee of $400 that entitles up to four anglers to fish on each of 100 registered contestant boats.

Upcoming winter salmon derbies in Marine Area 7 include the Roche Harbor Salmon Classic Invitational and the Orcas American Legion Post 93 Salmon Derby both usually held in February.

Also in February, the 20th-22nd, is the Marine Area 6 salmon fishing event, the Olympic Peninsula Salmon Derby based out of Gardiner Bay between Port Townsend and Port Angeles. In March, the one-day Everett Blackmouth Derby is on tap.

The Bellingham Puget Sound Anglers summer salmon fishing contest is already on the 2015 calendar slated for July 10-12.

All but the Orcas American Legion derby are among 14 registered fishing contests in the Northwest Marine Trade Association’s 2015 Northwest Salmon Derby Series. Participants in these contests are entered in the NMTA’s drawing that gives away a boat, motor, trailer and electronic sport-fishing package.

Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald’s outdoors correspondent, since 1983, has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http://pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.