News flash: “Jailed hatchery steelhead released after being held captive for two years! Anglers rejoice!”

In Oregon by steelheaders

By: Rob Masonis

That was essentially the message spread by various Puget Sound media outlets this week when the federal government allowed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to release fish from several steelhead hatcheries after two years. The hold-up had been, until last week, the hatcheries had not received permits establishing they did not jeopardize wild steelhead protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The headlines held the misguided promise of a good steelhead season next year. But a little fact-checking reveals otherwise.

While the hatchery steelhead in question were “incarcerated” for one offense (failure to have the required permit) they should have been jailed for another, far more serious transgression: providing lousy fishing.

The data indicate that such a charge would have stuck if tried in front of a fair and impartial jury, and that the verdict would have been delivered swiftly without the need for deliberation.

Here are the stats:

  • Over the most recent five year period, an annual average of 238 hatchery fish were harvested in the Stillaguamish
  • 82 fish were harvested in the Nooksack.
  • A paltry 59 were harvested in the Dungeness.
  • Only the hatcheries in the Skykomish and Snoqualmie, which returned on average 1,765 and 1,242 fish respectively over the same period, provided some worthwhile harvest opportunity.

In contrast, roughly 9,000 wild fish returned to the Skagit River the past few seasons.

hatchery fishThese numbers reveal that the steelhead hatcheries on the Stilly, Nooksack, and Dungeness have failed miserably to provide good angler opportunity. So instead of rejoicing that they are once again on-line, anglers should be lamenting a return to the failed status quo.

It is time to chart a new course for steelhead management in Puget Sound that promises more sustainable and diverse fishing opportunity, while also improving the odds of wild steelhead recovery and getting a better return on our habitat restoration investments. We have described such an approach, which uses a portfolio of rivers – some managed exclusively for wild steelhead and others managed with different hatchery techniques – in a previous blog.

Let me briefly recap how our portfolio approach would work in north Puget Sound. The Skagit – by far the best wild steelhead producing river – would be managed exclusively for wild fish and catch-and-release sport fishing. The current hatchery operations on the Skykomish and Snoqualmie would be continued because they have returned a meaningful number of hatchery fish that can be harvested by anglers who want to take a fish home. Hatchery operations on rivers like the Stilly and Nooksack would be revamped, using local broodstock to try to boost the wild populations and eventually provide fishing opportunity if the approach is successful. (We are not wed to the specific hatchery operations described here, but rather offer those as one option and to illustrate the concept.)

And because we would have an entire river basin managed exclusively for wild fish, we would have a badly needed controlled experiment that would enable us to answer critical questions about the relative performance of wild and hatchery fish and how to provide fishing opportunity while also recovering wild steelhead as required by law.

Since we proposed our portfolio approach we have received support from across the spectrum of anglers — gear and fly, urban and rural – and from steelhead managers. We believe this approach would move us beyond the tiresome and pointless zero-sum battle between hatchery and wild fish partisans. Instead, it would provide room for both wild and hatchery fish if managed based on sound science and a willingness to adapt as new information on what works and what doesn’t emerges.

Now THAT is something to get excited about.

Join us at TU and Wild Steelheaders United.