Comment on Lower Columbia Wild Steelhead Gene Bank

In Washington by Nick Chambers

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is seeking comment on its most recent round of Wild Steelhead Gene Bank designations. Wild Steelhead Gene Banks are mandated by WDFW in their 2008 Statewide Steelhead Management Plan.  Submit your comments at by this Friday, February 5th.

Per the Department, stocks selected as Gene Banks must be sufficiently abundant and productive to be self-sustaining into the future. Such status is determined by considering several factors, including the abundance and trends in the wild steelhead populations and the watershed’s habitat quantity and quality, in addition to the status of the hatchery and their contributions to angling opportunity.
In light of the considerations above and the Department’s criteria for evaluating Gene Bank potential, TU recommends the Grays-Chinook system. Criteria and rationale for selecting the Grays-Chinook are discussed below.

 small stream fising2

1. Grays-Chinook has the largest population of wild steelhead with the greatest future potential

Among lower Columbia rivers, the Grays/Chinook River supports the most abundant population of wild winter steelhead. Annual escapement over the last ten years (2005-2014) has averaged 562 steelhead in Grays/Chinook stock.  The Grays/Chinook  potential to support a larger population, as peak run sizes over the past twenty years have exceeded 1,000 steelhead in some years. This is reflected in the recovery goals, which are 800 spawners for the Grays/Chinook.
2. Grays-Chinook has the greatest amount of habitat available to steelhead
Habitat quantity and quality are critical to sustaining wild steelhead, and are thus, important to evaluating candidate stocks for Gene Bank designation. The Grays-Chinook River has  77 miles of steelhead habitat are almost twice as much as other systems in the region. Larger watersheds tend to have more diverse habitats, and life history diversity is a reflection of the amount and diversity of habitat.

3. The Grays-Chinook hatchery is not operational
Two additional criteria important to evaluating potential Gene Bank stocks are the status and goals of the hatchery programs. These criteria are particularly relevant here for a few reasons. First, the infrastructure of the Grays-Chinook hatchery has been compromised by high water and siltation, and as a result, it is no longer able to rear hatchery steelhead. It would be extremely expensive to repair, so production is proposed to be shifted to Beaver Creek in the Elochoman River. Elimination of hatchery releases in this case would thus save the Department the financial expenditure of repairing the infrastructure in the Grays-Chinook. Further, if the Grays-Chinook hatchery closes due to the high cost of repairs, the Grays-Chinook would be entirely hatchery free and represent an excellent contrast for future monitoring and research comparing hatchery and non-hatchery rivers. As we stated in our comments on Gene Banks in Puget Sound, this type of controlled experiment using rivers in close geographic proximity should greatly enhance the information available to effectively manage steelhead.


4. Elimination of the Grays-Chinook hatchery has potential to have minimal impact on opportunity because most anglers support a mix of wild-only and hatchery rivers and value the opportunity to fish for steelhead more than the opportunity to harvest steelhead.


We appreciate the fact that the Department is directed to provide fishing opportunity consistent with conservation of steelhead, and that anglers are an important constituency that the Department seeks to serve. So it is important that the Department understand the views of that constituency in designating Gene Banks.

As our polling shows a strong majority of steelhead anglers – regardless of whether they primarily use bait, lures or flies – support setting aside some rivers for wild steelhead and others for hatcheries. Second, a solid majority of anglers value the opportunity to fish for steelhead more than the opportunity to harvest steelhead. Third, a majority of anglers of all stripes support conservative fishery management in rivers where the wild steelhead population is either struggling or the status of the population is unknown. In such circumstances they lopsidedly favor catch-and-release over harvest, and longer seasons with more fishing restrictions over shorter seasons with fewer restrictions.

These findings bear emphasis because, too often, the terms “harvest” and “fishing” are used interchangeably, as if there were no difference between the two. There is a huge difference, and harvest opportunity and fishing opportunity can be inversely related when populations are depressed. In other words, a hatchery-based, harvest fishery impacting a depressed wild population would limit overall fishing opportunity because the harm to wild fish of the combination of hatchery impacts (e.g., reduced life history diversity; reduced fitness; reduced productivity) coupled with incidental mortality in the act of harvest impacts would be greater than a well regulated catch-and-release fishery. Consequently, the harvest fishing season would need to be shorter than a catch-and-release fishery to keep wild fish impacts to acceptable levels.
While the goal of self-sustaining wild steelhead in Gene Bank systems is certainly appropriate, the goal should be set higher: abundant, fishable and self-sustaining populations. Designating the Grays-Chinook as a Gene Bank would be a significant step in that direction given its ability to produce a relatively abundant wild population of steelhead that could support a well-managed CnR fishery. Further, it would alleviate the cost of upgrading the Grays-Chinook hatchery. The nearby Elochoman River would still provide hatchery steelhead for harvest and the Mills/Abernathy/Germany research facility would continue to contribute important information on the utility of broodstock hatcheries. Lastly, it bears emphasis that our recommendation is consistent with the recommendation by the workgroup (9-6 in favor of Grays-Chinook as a Gene Bank), and the Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG), which noted – “a unique opportunity exists to establish a Wild Steelhead Management Zone” within the Grays River Basin.

For the foregoing reasons, TU supports the Grays-Chinook for Gene Bank designation.