The future of Puget Sound steelhead fisheries remains uncertain, including for steelhead management on the Skagit River.
The state Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, chaired by Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, heard Thursday from state, tribal, conservation and recreation representatives.
No steelhead hatchery program is operating on the Skagit River as a result of a lawsuit agreement the state Department of Fish & Wildlife agreed to in 2014.
The agency is also considering designating the Skagit River as a wild steelhead gene bank, which would prohibit steelhead hatchery operations indefinitely in an effort to restore the wild fish population.
Fishermen — commercial, recreational and tribal — have different ideas of how to proceed.
One thing all speakers seemed to agree on Thursday is the importance of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finishing hatchery genetic management plans for Puget Sound steelhead hatcheries.
The state’s Puget Sound hatcheries were vulnerable to lawsuits, such as the one in 2014, because of delays in completing the plans.
Federal approval of the plans is required in order to ensure hatchery operations are not harming fish protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Wild Puget Sound steelhead were listed as endangered in 2007.
Stakeholders said Thursday that the hatchery plans need to be addressed to protect state and tribal fishing opportunities.
Tribal representatives also stressed the importance of hatcheries. Hatchery fish can fill treaty obligations, support commercial and recreational fishing, and be used for research, said Mike Crewson, salmon biologist for the Tulalip Tribes.
“Every watershed, we believe, should have its own balance of wild and hatchery fisheries based on its own needs,” he said.
For that reason, several Puget Sound tribes do not support a wild steelhead gene bank on the Skagit River. Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, said eliminating hatcheries will not effectively allow the wild fish population to recover.
The loss of habitat in the Puget Sound region is a key factor in the decline of the fish, he said. Dams on the Skagit and Baker rivers, along with weather and ocean survival problems — such as “the blob,” a large area of warm water — are also major contributors.
Butch Smith, a representative for the state charter boat industry, said hatchery fish are essential to supporting the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue tied to the fishing industry.
Those who support the gene bank concept argue it is a temporary experimental measure.
Operating hatcheries on some Puget Sound rivers while barring them from others could fill long-standing data gaps and direct future steelhead management, they say.
Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups say the Skagit River is a good candidate for experimental gene banking.
“It is the most important steelhead river in Puget Sound,” said Trout Unlimited researcher John McMillan. “It is producing the vast majority of steelhead compared to other rivers.”
The possibility of a gene bank has spurred a lot of local conversation, as well.
Sedro-Woolley, Lyman, Hamilton and Mount Vernon have passed resolutions opposing gene banking the Skagit River for wild steelhead.
The Concrete Town Council and Skagit County Board of Commissioners are gathering information on the issue.
“The commissioners are not yet prepared to take a position, although I have grave reservations about putting further restrictions on access to that river,” Skagit County Board of Commissioners Chair Lisa Janicki said following a Jan. 19 presentation from Trout Unlimited.