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The state Department of Fish and Wildlife reached an agreement April 25 with the Wild Fish Conservancy that stops litigation against the department over its hatchery programs for 2½ years and permits the release of hatchery steelhead this spring into only one Puget Sound river, the Skykomish in Snohomish County.
It halts for now the stocking of hatchery steelhead in other Puget Sound-area rivers. The Dungeness is considered one of them.
Only Dungeness affected
The settlement does not bar the planting of hatchery fish in the Hoh, Sol Duc, Calawah, Bogachiel and other North Olympic Peninsula steelhead rivers. The agreement doesn't regulate North Peninsula rivers other than the Dungeness.
In a March 31 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, the Duvall-based nonprofit conservancy claimed the department's Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The group contends that hatchery-bred fish compete with wild steelhead, salmon and bull trout, all listed as threatened, and impair recovery efforts.
Department officials admitted the department was vulnerable to litigation because its hatchery steelhead operations had not been approved by National Marine Fisheries Service following the ESA listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007.
The department worked with tribal co-managers to revise and update its hatchery genetic management plans for all Puget Sound steelhead hatcheries and resubmitted them to NMFS earlier this year.
They are still under review.
The department, however, countered the conservancy's claiming, saying it has taken numerous steps based on current science to ensure its hatchery operations protect wild steelhead. a seagoing rainbow trout, and other listed fish species.
“This agreement is a giant win for Puget Sound's wild steelhead and their recovery,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy.
“There are four major causes for the decline of salmon and steelhead. Loss of habitat is the largest problem facing salmon and steelhead recovery.
“Science clearly points to dams, hatcheries and overharvest as three additional problems that need to be fixed.
“Applying science-based hatchery practices is something we can do right now that will have immediate and long-term positive benefits.
“Fisheries all over the world have collapsed because politics, not science, guided their management.
“Science remains the best and most reliable compass to guide recovery and to meet our solemn stewardship responsibility to future generations.”
“It's incredible frustration. First because the department didn't consult with any of the sports groups that might be impacted, nor did they talk to the tribes, I think,” said Frank Urabeck, a sport fishing advocate from Bonney Lake in Pierce County.
“[The state] basically disarmed themselves.
“It is terrible. They left us with one fishery. There has been a lot of trust lost over this.
“Where we go from here, who knows? This year is clearly lost. Who knows where we're going to be a year from now?
“If the feds don't have the resources to go through these plans, why would you think we wouldn't be in the same position next year with another group?
“This could also go into chinook, and that's the big money fish.
“It's one big mess and has been poorly handled by the state and feds.”
“I don't find 100 percent fault with the department, but I do to a point because they didn't meet the mandates to get these permits,” said Mike Chamberlain of Ted's Sports Center in the Snohomish County city of Lynnwood.
“But why aren't [the conservancy] working with the department to get these permits in place? What are they doing that is positive? Why aren't you working with the department instead of fighting them?
“We in the fishing industry have struggled with the decline in the steelhead fishing.
“Is it a viable entity for us to maintain stock in that anymore? Probably not.
“It seems like every year, we face more curtailment. It's getting to the point where it's pretty lean financially.
“It isn't just me as a tackle shop; it's the manufacturers, it's the gas stations, the mom-and-pop stores, the cafes, the lodging.
“It will be interesting to see where we're at in 10 years.”
“It's important to remember why we have hatcheries in the first place,” Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said when the suit was first filed. (Frank died Monday.)
“They were built to make up for lost natural steelhead and salmon production that has been nearly destroyed by habitat loss and damage. They have been an important part of salmon management in Washington for more than 100 years.
“Lost and damaged habitat, not hatcheries or harvest, is what's driving wild steelhead and salmon populations toward extinction.
“The focus needs to be on fixing and protecting habitat, not fighting over hatcheries and the fish they produce.”
Last month, a panel of federal appellate judges rejected the conservancy's request, filed with other conservation groups, to stop the planting of hatchery-born steelhead in the Elwha River west of Port Angeles.
The ruling clears the way for Lower Elwha Klallam tribal hatchery managers to proceed with their planned release of as many as 175,000 steelhead along with 425,000 coho salmon from a $16.5 million hatchery built to help restore Elwha River fish runs as part of the river's dam removals.
But in the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle said federal agencies must review their plans to see whether the release numbers could be reduced.
He said the government should confer on a compromise with the conservation groups, which had proposed a release of 50,000 steelhead and 50,000 coho into the Elwha.
Puget Sound rivers
Key elements of the state-conservancy agreement over the Puget Sound-area rivers:
■ State Fish and Wildlife may release up to 180,000 hatchery steelhead in 2014 and again in 2015 into the Skykomish River, which flows into the Snohomish River near Monroe.
■ The conservancy will not sue the department over its Puget Sound hatchery programs during the next 2½ years or until National Marine Fisheries Service approves those programs, whichever comes first.
■ The agency will refrain from planting early winter hatchery steelhead into most rivers in the Puget Sound region until NMFS completes its review.
■ A 12-year research program will be created on the Skagit River. During the study, no early winter steelhead will be released into the Skagit watershed.
In cooperation with the conservancy, the department will work with tribes to evaluate and potentially implement a steelhead hatchery program in the Skagit using native steelhead.
■ The department may release hatchery steelhead into other rivers around Puget Sound when NMFS approves the department's hatchery genetic management plans.
■ Early winter steelhead from department hatcheries that cannot be released into Puget Sound-area rivers will be released into inland trout lakes that have no connection to the Sound.
The department will give the conservancy 14 days' advance notice of those releases.
■ The agency will pay the conservancy $45,000 for litigation expenses.