Wildlife official testifies in lawsuit to replace culverts for salmon restoration

SEATTLE — Pouring money into fixing fish- blocking culverts at the expense of other restoration measures could wind up degrading wild salmon runs, former Washington state Fish and Wildlife Director Jeffrey Koenings testified Friday.

Koenings, a key state witness in a lawsuit with tens of millions of dollars at stake, said experts generally agree that restoring depleted salmon runs requires balancing harvest management, hatchery operations, hydroelectric generating and habitat enhancement in coordinated but individual plans tailored to each watershed.

“In my opinion that’s not occurring to the degree that it needs to occur,” Koenings told U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez. “We’ve been trying to do this. We just haven’t been able to get to it.”

Native-American tribes have asked Martinez to order the state to drastically speed up the repair and replacement of culverts — especially those involving state highways — that pose barriers to salmon heading upstream to spawn and to their offspring heading out to sea.

The case covers most of Western Washington, extending from the Canadian border southward into parts of Pacific and Lewis counties.

Harvesting can be directed to reduce the number of hatchery fish that reach spawning grounds while protecting wild runs, and hatchery production remains vital for at least the short run to provide salmon for tribal, nontribal commercial and recreational fishing, Koenings explained.

However, most of his testimony concerned culvert work as a critical component of habitat, and he barely mentioned hydroelectric dams, which are less of a concern in the court battle.

Koenings enjoyed generally good relations with tribal leaders when he ran Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Department for nearly 10 years.

He now represents the state Recreation and Conservation Office on the U.S.-Canadian Pacific Salmon Commission and other salmon panels.

He noted that hatchery fish are genetically inferior and capable of interbreeding with wild stocks, producing less hearty offspring that are nonetheless considered wild if they return to spawn as adults.

That factor is a key consideration in deciding the needs of any given river system to achieve the overall goal of “a wild fish population that is sustainable for the future” without help from hatcheries, Koenings said.

For example, he said, state harvest controls are a bigger concern on the Skagit River than on the Nooksack because most of the Nooksack fish are caught in British Columbia.

Culvert corrections are a big part of habitat but loom much larger on some river systems than others, he added.

Koenings cautioned that diverting too much money to replacing or repairing barrier culverts without action to assure adequate wild spawning runs could result in hatchery salmon flooding the new habitat, progressively weakening the genetic quality of the resulting runs.

“You may be doing more harm in the long run,” he said.

In the Puget Sound region, Koenings noted, all but four of the 22 watersheds are now dominated by hatchery fish.

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