The case for a portfolio of wild-only and hatchery steelhead rivers in Puget Sound

In Washington by Nick Chambers

What does “fishing opportunity” mean to steelhead anglers?

The answer depends on who you ask.

For some, opportunity must include the ability to harvest steelhead. But for the majority of anglers, based on our extensive poll of roughly 650 active steelhead anglers, opportunity is defined as being on the water with the chance to catch and release a steelhead.


hatchery bonk

So what is a steelhead manager to do given this divide in the community of steelhead anglers and the legal (and I would argue, moral) imperative to protect and sustain wild steelhead? The solution we propose is a portfolio approach to management. That means we should manage some rivers for hatchery fish, thus providing harvest for those who desire that type of fishery, and manage other rivers for wild fish and catch-and-release opportunity.


Our extensive polling suggests this is the type of management model preferred by most anglers – 62 percent want some rivers dedicated to wild steelhead and others where hatcheries provide harvest opportunity, while the remainder either want hatcheries in all rivers or no hatcheries at all.


The challenge comes with actually implementing the framework. A number of anglers have asked how Wild Steelheaders United would deal with such a challenge.


We describe below how we would implement the portfolio approach for winter steelhead in three different rivers in north Puget Sound in Washington. This example is timely because decisions are currently being made in this region about how to manage steelhead hatcheries and where to establish wild steelhead management zones.


First, we would manage the Skagit River system exclusively for wild steelhead. Why? It has by far the largest wild steelhead population of all Puget Sound rivers, roughly 9,000 which is more than the Hoh and Queets rivers on the Olympic Peninsula combined. It has a lot of relatively high quality habitat that can support a fishable (catch-and-release) wild steelhead population and tribal harvest consistent with the tribes’ treaty rights (50 percent of the “harvestable surplus”). And it is a critical population for recovering wild steelhead in greater Puget Sound, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.


Second, though we believe the Skykomish River has substantial wild steelhead production potential, in the spirit of compromise we would support continuing the current winter steelhead hatchery program in the Sky with a solid monitoring program. If success is defined as the number of hatchery fish caught in fisheries, this is the most successful (and most cost-effective) winter steelhead hatchery of its type in Puget Sound (i.e., segregated hatchery designed to provide harvest opportunity).


Mind you, that is not a high bar to clear given the overall poor performance of such segregated hatchery programs. The Skykomish hatchery should also be operated consistent with standards established by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group to minimize harm to wild steelhead.


Third, in the Stillaguamish River, we suggest experimenting with a different type of hatchery program, one that uses local broodstock to try to rebuild the river’s depleted wild steelhead population. This would enable us to evaluate whether such a hatchery program could be effective for this conservation purpose. To date, there is thin evidence that this is the case, but it could be tried on an experimental basis.


This type of portfolio approach has multiple benefits.


First, it would provide different types of fishing opportunity consistent with angler preference; catch-and-release fisheries for wild fish on the Skagit, and harvest (hatchery fish) opportunity on the Skykomish during the hatchery fish return. The catch-and-release fishery on the Skagit also would increase economic activity in Skagit River communities by adding a fishery that currently does not exist due in significant part to the large number of wild steelhead harvested in past decades.


Second, it would align with the goal of recovering Puget Sound steelhead to the point that they no longer need ESA protection. In particular, ensuring that the “cornerstone” wild steelhead population in the Skagit is spared the harmful impacts of hatcheries and trying to boost the Stilly’s wild steelhead population with a local broodstock program would be consistent with recovery objectives. Harm to the Sky’s wild steelhead would be minimized through use of best management practices consistent with the recommendations of the Hatchery Scientific Review Group and Washington State policy. But it should be recognized that there is absolutely no conservation benefit to wild steelhead of segregated hatcheries such as that used in the Sky, and that there are serious genetic and ecological problems with these types of programs. The science is very clear on this.


Third, it would enable all of us – wild fish zealots and hatchery fish devotees – to learn how these different approaches work relative to one another in relation to both conservation and fishing opportunity goals. In other words, we will have a large-scale, controlled experiment that we have been sorely lacking in Puget Sound. And as we learn from that experiment, we can improve management.



We at TU and Wild Steelheaders United are going to push hard for rivers with high wild steelhead potential, such the Skagit system, to be managed exclusively for wild fish because the evidence shows that it is the best bet both for reliable, sustainable fishing opportunity and conservation of wild steelhead.


Stepping back from the north Puget Sound example, the challenge of managing hatchery and wild steelhead is a microcosm of a larger issue across the range of wild steelhead in the lower-48. Anglers want sustainable fishing opportunity. We are anglers ourselves. We get that. At the same time we want to recover wild steelhead, a requirement established in federal law. We believe the portfolio framework described here is the best approach for meeting these dual objectives.

We hope other anglers will see the wisdom in having such a portfolio of wild-only and hatchery rivers and will join us in asking for it.

John McMillan
Steelhead Science Director
Trout unlimited