SULTAN — A threatened fish species is in trouble, and scientists think some human-caused harm is entirely preventable.
The number of wild winter steelhead in the Sultan River, north of the Skykomish, has steadily declined since the early 1990s. Last year, just 28 of the fish were counted.
Natural resource scientists at the Snohomish County Public Utility District have watched the trend with concern — and they believe the timing of the fishing season and suction dredge mining in the upper Sultan are contributing to the stock’s decline.
Puget Sound steelhead were federally recognized as threatened in 2007.
A matter of timing
The Sultan River is one of the most highly monitored bodies of water in the Snohomish Basin, said Keith Binkley, manager of natural resources at the PUD. Careful data collection is required as environmental mitigation for the department’s Jackson Hydroelectric Project, located in the Sultan River watershed.
“The license requires we monitor the heck out of fish populations,” Binkley said.
His team tracks winter steelhead as they migrate between their spawning grounds in the Sultan River to the ocean and back.
They’ve found that on June 1, the historical start date of fishing season on the Skykomish, about 11 percent of winter steelhead are still en route up the Skykomish back to their spawning grounds in the Sultan River.
That means 11 percent of steelhead are put at risk when the Skykomish season opens June 1. This year, the PUD asked the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to push the opening date to June 15, when just 3 percent of steelhead are historically still migrating.
Instead, the department opened the season early, on May 25. It’s a change Binkley said is concerning and doesn’t make sense.
Each year on that date, the PUD estimates about 26 percent of steelhead are still making their way up the Skykomish.
“So you’ve got a portion of our fish trying to return that can be intercepted by the fishery,” Binkley said.
The season opened earlier due to a statewide rule change, said Edward Eleazer, North Puget Sound fish program manager at Fish and Wildlife. In the past, rivers statewide opened and closed on a wide range of dates. Now, rivers and tributaries are all open at a similar time.
Eleazer said the financial impact of moving the opening date to June 15 would be considerable for the sports-fishing community.
“Tens of thousands of dollars would be lost due to the lack of opportunity to go fishing during the Memorial Day weekend,” he said in an email.
The techniques used while fishing also impact baby steelhead, or smolts.
Bait is allowed in the Skykomish, which Binkley said leads to a higher mortality rate than other catch methods for steelhead smolts.
The mouth of the Sultan River where it meets the Skykomish, near Sportsman Park, is a hotspot for steelhead. In addition to delaying the fishing season and restricting baiting, the PUD would like to see fishing at the mouth of the Sultan limited.
While these impacts aren’t necessarily causes of steelhead endangerment, they’re preventing the species’ recovery, Binkley said.
“We believe (they) are impeding the recovery of these fish and they’re controllable, and we have to do all we can do,” he said.
A fisherman himself, Binkley made it clear the PUD isn’t anti-fishing.
“We just want to make sure it’s done correctly and in line with recovery,” he said.
The PUD has invested about $21 million in ratepayer dollars for fish recovery in the Sultan River, environmental coordinator Larry Lowe said. Fishing timing and techniques are undermining those efforts.
“From an economic standpoint, we know the money is coming from the (rate)payers and we want to make sure they’re getting the best bang for their buck,” Lowe said. “And this is impeding their recovery.”
It’s too late to make any changes for this year’s fishing season. So Binkley’s team is doing its best to spread awareness for next year.
Lowe created a poster encouraging fishermen to handle steelhead carefully and distributed it at popular launches.
“If nothing can be done this year, we’ll do everything we can to educate folks then line up for coming at it hard next year,” he said.
Science and policy
In 2016, the PUD built the Sultan River diversion dam to improve fish passage and restore salmon habitat. Within a month, salmon and steelhead had returned to the upper river for the first time in nearly a century.
When they did, they ran into suction dredge mining, which has taken place in the upper Sultan for decades.
Suction dredge mining is a type of recreational gold mining that uses a vacuum to suck up the bottom of rivers and streams to look for gold, according to Fish and Wildlife. It can kill young fish and eggs and disturb spawning gravel.
Between spawning and rearing, steelhead are now in the upper Sultan all year long.
The idea of allowing suction dredge mining in that area is counter to protecting threatened and endangered fish, said Andrew McDonnell, senior environmental coordinator with the PUD.
A bill that was introduced in the state senate this year, but did not pass, would have heavily restricted suction dredge mining throughout state.
“It’s an interesting mix, the world of science and the world of policy,” Lowe said.
In the 1980s, Snohomish County set a steelhead escapement goal, the number of fish that make it to the ocean and back to their spawning grounds, of 6,500 for the entire Snohomish Basin. That goal was last met in 1981, McDonnell said.
Last year, the total among all the basin’s rivers (Snohomish, Skykomish, Pilchuck, Snoqualmie, North Fork Skykomish, Tolt, Sultan) was 1,282. This year, McDonnell said they’re expecting to see fewer than a thousand.
“Now the point is that it’s so low, we’re in a dire situation,” McDonnell said. “We need to now, more than ever, be protecting these fish.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.