PAT NEAL: Really, how unique are Elwha steelhead?

You have to wonder if hatchery steelhead are really so bad for native ones.

I WANTED TO enter something from my garden into the county fair this year, but my garden was a failure.

I really should have plowed up the ground last spring.

Then there are all the other little details of a blue-ribbon garden, such as planting seeds in the plowed-up ground.

Then you have to thin the seedlings and water and weed throughout the summer until harvest.

You have to be careful how you pick your vegetables.

Choose only the ripe ones and don’t harm the ones still growing.

Unfortunately, I was too busy fishing to plow, plant, weed, thin or water, and now, as winter approaches, I am left with a garden as dead as a concrete slab.

I know it serves me right to suffer, but I am not alone.

Doing nothing to raise a garden and then expecting a blue-ribbon harvest reminds me of a government press release that came out last week declaring the Elwha River a designated gene bank to protect wild steelhead.

According to Jim Scott, assistant director for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish program, the decision, made by agency Director Jim Unsworth, was based on the belief that hatchery steelhead “pose risks to native fish through interbreeding and competition for spawning areas.”

In the Aug. 15 press release, he went on to say that the Elwha native steelhead are believed to be genetically distinct compared to all other steelhead in the streams entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which would make them unique in all of the Earth and the known universe.

As a gene bank for wild steelhead, there will be no more plants of hatchery steelhead in the Elwha by the state of Washington.

In fact, planting steelhead in the Elwha was stopped, before removal of the Elwha River dams began in 2011, after 50-odd years of hatchery steelhead plants that made the Elwha one of the most productive steelhead fishing rivers in Washington.

You have to wonder if the hatchery steelhead are really so bad for native steelhead.

How did the native steelhead survive 50 years of planting hatchery steelhead?

Are the Elwha native steelhead actually genetically distinct any more than you and I are genetically distinct?

Or is this all just part of a perceived effort to end steelhead fishing in Washington by inventing new subspecies?

In 2014, the Wild Fish Conservancy sued the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to stop planting hatchery steelhead.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife caved in to the Fish Conservancy, planting our steelhead in a landlocked lake in Eastern Washington and, in a settlement, paying the WFC $45,000 for its trouble.

Sensing victory, the WFC is now suing to shut down 62 fish hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin that produce 60 million chinook, coho, steelhead and sockeye salmon.

In making this illogical decision to stop planting steelhead in the Elwha, Fish and Wildlifeis forgetting it is a co-manager of the Elwha with the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, which has the right to harvest steelhead.

The tribe has a steelhead hatchery.

Fish and Wildlifeassumes the tribe will stop raising steelhead whenever Fish and Wildlife restoration objectives for wild steelhead are met or whenever the WFC sues.

Non-tribal members might be allowed to fish Elwha steelhead when Fish and Wildlife allows it, but don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, you have to ask: Where is a healthy run of wild steelhead in Washington?

That would be the Quinault River.

The Quinault tribe plants hatchery steelhead from native brood stock to produce the best steelhead fishing in the state.

Will the Elwha co-managers cooperate to restore steelhead in the Elwha?

Wasn’t that the whole point of the $325 million Elwha River dam removal project in the first place?

Or will the Elwha be as dead as my garden?


Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal

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