Wild vs Hatchery in WA: A followup

In Washington by Shauna Sherard

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This week, Trout Unlimited’s John McMillan got a chance to talk steelhead with Seattle’s King 5 network this week.

At the top of his list was the debate over wild steelhead and hatchery plants and the proposal that will designate certain rivers in the Puget Sound area as gene banks. Gene banks are rivers managed for wild fish without the addition of hatchery plants.

The proposal is still under consideration by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We think the best approach is it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach over the hatchery issue. We can come together as anglers and find a balance,” McMillan told King 5.

But that doesn’t mean every river is suited to hatchery fish. Some rivers are prime areas for the recovery of wild steelhead, such as those listed in the gene bank proposal. These are the rivers we should set aside and with the focus of restoring wild runs.

A little more about our position on gene banks

What are they?

Wild Steelhead Gene Banks are rivers where no hatchery steelhead are released so that only naturally produced (i.e., wild) steelhead are free of the harmful effects of hatcheries. Wild steelhead populations are eligible for Wild Steelhead Gene Bank designation if they are sufficiently abundant and productive to be self-sustaining in the future.

The designation of Wild Steelhead Gene Banks is required under Washington’s Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, which was adopted by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2008. Under the Statewide Plan, the state must designate at least one Wild Steelhead Gene Bank in each of three regions in Puget Sound: Nor th Cas- cades, Hood Canal/Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Central/South Cascades.

Fishing can be allowed in Wild Steelhead Gene Bank rivers if consistent with conservation goals.

What we propose

Vision: A diversified “steelhead portfolio” that conserves wild steelhead, provides sustainable and diverse fishing opportunity and ensures that public funds are spent wisely. This diverse portfolio should include:

  • Designating as Wild Steelhead Gene Banks entire, large river basins in Puget Sound that possess the greatest potential to support abundant, fishable populations of wild steelhead;
  • Experimenting with different types of hatcheries in several other Puget Sound rivers to determine whether hatcheries can be cost-effectively operated to provide either conservation or fishing benefits without causing significant harm to wild populations. This diverse portfolio will allow us to run a critical experiment necessary to determine both the resilience of wild steelhead and which hatchery practices provide the greatest benefit with the least harm, while simultaneously providing steelhead anglers the mix of fishing opportunities they desire.

The specifics

Entire Skagit, Elwha and Puyallup/White river basins should be designated Wild Steelhead Gene Banks.

  • These are large river basins with good, diverse habitat and wild steelhead populations that have the potential to be self-sustaining in the future.
  • These river basins are fed by high mountain snowpack, which will be critical to maintaining good water conditions in a warming climate.
  • The Puget Sound Hatchery Action Advisory Committee, a citizens’ committee appointed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, recommended these rivers as Wild Steelhead Gene Banks.
  • Only by setting aside entire river basins for wild fish will we be able to conduct the large scale scientific experiments necessary to answer critical questions about wild and hatchery steelhead.
  • Enormous public investments have been made in habitat restoration in these basins in order to protect wild steelhead and salmon. For example, over $350 million was spent to remove the two Elwha River dams, and over $80 million has been spent in the Skagit. We should maximize the return on those investments.
  • Anglers support a diverse portfolio of wild and hatchery rivers and highly value wild steelhead. TU just completed a poll of 650 steelhead anglers in Washington, Oregon and California, and a strong majority – 62% — supported setting some rivers aside for wild fish and allowing hatcheries in others.
  • These rivers either currently could support catch-and-release steelhead fishing (Skagit and Puyallup) or have the potential to do so in the near-future (Elwha).