Set aside three rivers for wild steelhead

  • By Pete Soverel, Kurt Beardslee, Rich Simms and Bill Bakke
  • Friday, August 7, 2015 3:01pm
  • OpinionCommentary

Steelhead are Washington’s state fish. Revered by anglers and historically numerous, today most of our wild steelhead runs are in deep trouble, either extinct or threatened with extirpation, extinction of local species. Current populations are less than 5 percent of historic abundance. But this month, Washingtonians have a chance to take a stand for an imperiled icon.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently accepting public comments at tinyurl.com/SteelheadcommentWDFW through Thursday, Aug. 13 on plans to designate a minimum of three Wild Steelhead “Gene Banks” or management zones in the Puget Sound region to promote recovery. This includes at least one Wild Steelhead Gene Bank for each Puget Sound steelhead population group: North Puget Sound, Central-South Puget Sound and Hood Canal-Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A moratorium would be placed on planting hatchery steelhead in these watersheds to reduce harmful competition and intermingling with threatened wild fish. Once recovery thresholds are met, selective catch-and-release steelhead angling opportunities could be opened similar to those on the Olympic Peninsula’s Sol Duc River, a previously designated steelhead gene bank.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration specifically identified steelhead hatcheries as a principal cause of the long-term decline in wild steelhead runs, as well as their loss of reproductive productivity, genetic fitness, life-history diversity and distribution across our region.

In an effort to reverse the downward spiral of our struggling state fish, a Statewide Steelhead Management Plan was adopted in 2008 with the goal of restoring and maintaining “the abundance, distribution, diversity and long-term productivity of Washington’s wild steelhead.”

Establishing a network of hatchery-free watersheds is a key element of the steelhead recovery plan. Eight years later, the public process to designate wild steelhead sanctuaries is finally moving forward on Salish Sea rivers.

Since steelhead utilize all or most of their natal rivers, the entire system must be free of hatchery steelhead to provide the best chance for recovery. Additionally, steelhead management zones must have suitable habitat conditions to support wild fish recovery, and ample cold water supply for resilience against drought and climate change.

Each of the rivers we recommend meets this standard. They are:

North Sound’s Skagit River: The Skagit has the largest, and most diverse wild steelhead population remaining in the state. The watershed drains some of the highest areas in the state ensuring cold water refuges and substantial, stable summer flows. The Cascade, Sauk and Skagit are all federally designated Wild &Scenic Rivers, and much of the drainage comes from the North Cascades National Park and other protected wilderness. Cinching the deal, the Skagit is already hatchery-free by court order through 2026; it’s a freebie.

Central-South Sound’s Puyallup River: Historically, the Puyallup supported immense and diverse wild steelhead populations, and it retains excellent reproductive potential. The upper Puyallup and its main tributaries, the Carbon and White rivers, have relatively intact and protected habit. Glaciers on Mount Rainier provide cold, consistent flows throughout the summer. Like the Skagit, the Puyallup watershed is, in effect, already a de facto steelhead gene bank free of hatchery steelhead except for a small hatchery on the White River.

Hood Canal and Strait of Juan de Fuca’s Elwha River: Historically, the Elwha supported large runs of winter and summer steelhead. Recently, strong support for the restoration of wild salmon and steelhead in the Elwha helped bring down two dams, opening access to pristine habitat in Olympia National Park. Elwha dam removal is the largest wild fish recovery effort undertaken in U.S. history. Designating the Elwha as a gene bank, in cooperation with federal, tribal and other stakeholders, can help make this effort a success.

For the benefit of wild steelhead and the natural heritage of future generations, it’s time to take real, meaningful steps to preserve and recover our state fish. We ask you to join us in urging the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to designate, at a minimum, the Skagit, Puyallup and Elwha watersheds as Wild Steelhead Gene Banks.

The following groups are dedicated to recovering wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest: Pete Soverel represents The Conservation Angler. Kurt Beardslee is with Wild Fish Conservancy. Rich Simms is with Wild Steelhead Coalition. Bill Bakke represents the Native Fish Society.

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