Early winter hatchery steelhead will not be released in the Skagit River next month, nor for the next 12 years, as the result of a lawsuit settlement between a Duvall-based nonprofit and the state.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a Skagit River fishery for recreational and tribal fisherman, state Department of Fish and Wildlife Assistant Director Jim Scott said.

The Wild Fish Conservancy sued the state agency March 31, arguing that because the state’s steelhead hatchery management plans had not yet completed a review through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it was violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The state’s use of Chambers Creek steelhead in northern Puget Sound became the cornerstone of the complaint because the Conservancy argued the nonnative fish have negative genetic impacts on the dwindling wild species.

The organizations reached a settlement Friday, but the decision is contentious.

While acknowledging that certain hatchery practices may pose risks to wild fish productivity and recovery, Fish and Wildlife denies the Conservancy’s claim and said the department has taken numerous steps to ensure its hatchery operations protect wild fish, according to a news release.

The Conservancy calls the settlement a “big advance” for wild steelhead recovery, but the Upper Skagit Tribe says it’s a major loss for tribal fisheries and state recreation.

“I’m sure there are a lot of individuals, tribal and otherwise, that aren’t happy that we aren’t going to be able to release this fish this year,” said Kelly Cunningham, deputy assistant director for the state’s fish program.

The agreement includes withholding Chambers Creek fish until NOAA approves management plans for each of the state’s nine northern Puget Sound hatcheries, except for allowing the release of 180,000 juveniles in the Skykomish River this spring. It also includes a 12-year moratorium on releasing the early winter species in the Skagit River system.

Removing hatchery fish from the Skagit, Puget Sound’s largest tributary and most important wild steelhead river, will make it “the largest wild steelhead research project of its kind” and set an example that can “guide and inform future salmon and steelhead recovery efforts,” according to the Conservancy.

The organization also expects the action to improve fisheries over the long run and prevent tighter restrictions that would be enacted if the species, which is at 3 percent of its historical numbers, is listed as endangered, Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee said.

“Hatchery fish have a significant negative impact on wild fish, and so it’s important to remove them from a system you are trying to restore wild fish in,” he said. “… By doing things that you know are going to have a high probability of success now, before they become listed as endangered, you’re actually protecting and investing in a future.”

The Upper Skagit Tribe does not share the sentiment.

“Sustainable from the tribal perspective is we want to have fish to catch and to use for our ceremonies and to eat,” Upper Skagit Tribe Natural Resources Director Scott Schuyler said. “Just having ‘museum’ fish come back that we can’t catch in order to preserve is just not going to cut it.”

The Upper Skagit joined three other area tribes in speaking out against the lawsuit a week prior to the settlement. The tribes say habitat loss is the primary reason for a decrease in wild fish, and recovery efforts should be channeled there instead of attacking the use of hatchery fish for tribal and recreational fisheries.

The Conservancy agrees that habitat loss is a problem for wild fish, but said hatchery fish are another contributor to the species’ decline.

“Loss of habitat is the largest problem facing salmon and steelhead recovery. The public has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in habitat restoration and preservation, and we need to continue this important work,” Beardslee said in a prepared statement. “But science clearly points to dams, hatcheries and over-harvest as three additional problems that need to be fixed.”

Because the one-third of Chambers Creek steelhead typically released into the Skagit River are not going to be released this spring, the return of early winter steelhead will not be strong enough to support a fishery two years from now.

The state is considering other hatchery options that would have a lower impact on the wild fish like using local, wild stock, Fish and Wildlife’s Scott said. If the agency is able to move quickly in coordination with the Conservancy and area tribes, it could have a program in place as early as next year.

Upper Skagit’s Schuyler said that type of “integrative approach” is something the tribes used to do, and they are interested in pursuing it with the state.

“Short term, we lost the fishery,” he said. “But if we are successful in building an integrative, cooperative program, we can hopefully get the fishery back for citizens and tribes to enjoy.”

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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