Puget Sound steelhead

This map shows the various watersheds including the Skagit River where Puget Sound steelhead, as defined under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, come from.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has drafted a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead, including those from the Skagit River.

The fisheries service, which is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is taking public comment on the plan through March 28.

A recovery plan is required for any species protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Puget Sound steelhead were listed as threatened under the act in 2007 after populations of the fish declined for several years in area rivers including the Skagit River — once a stronghold for the species.

The plan provides guidance for the protection and recovery of Puget Sound steelhead, which are those originating in rivers from the Elwha east and north to the Nooksack.

According to the recovery plan, between about 400,000 and 1 million fish were recorded through commercial fisheries in the late 1800s.

The number of steelhead returning to Puget Sound rivers declined throughout the 1900s and now the population is an estimated 10 percent or less of its historical size, according to the plan.

The recovery plan proposes ways to address factors that led to the decline and continue to threaten Puget Sound steelhead in order to restore a self-sustaining and viable population.

According to the Endangered Species Act, a population is considered viable when it has a low risk of extinction over a 100-year period due to abundance, growth and diversity.

The primary impacts to the species include barriers to passage such as roads and dams, flood control using dams and dikes, urban development, hatchery fish, water availability and climate change impacts.

Strategies range from improving fish passage under roads to removing dams where necessary. The recommendations also include increasing monitoring of the species and addressing climate change impacts such as increasing water temperatures.

Scientific modeling suggests Skagit and several other Puget Sound rivers used by steelhead will be exposed to low flows and potentially high water temperatures due to climate change, according to the plan.

The Skagit River is also affected by flood control, with dikes and levees preventing the natural formation of intertidal and side channel habitats along much of the river and dams preventing entry into the Baker River.

That means less habitat where adult steelhead can spawn when they return and less space for young fish to stay and grow before heading out to sea, according to the plan.

The plan suggests improving fish passage at dams on the Baker River — which meets with the Skagit River near the town of Concrete — and several others in the region would “provide the greatest and timeliest opportunity” to restore Puget Sound steelhead.

The Baker River dams are operated by Puget Sound Energy. The energy company would need to work with area tribes as well as state and federal wildlife agencies to plan and complete fish passage improvements.

The plan states that completing such recovery strategies is dependent on funding. The overall recovery effort will likely take decades and millions, if not billions, of dollars.

The state Department of Fish & Wildlife and tribes that co-manage the state’s fisheries were involved in the development of the plan.

According to Fish & Wildlife data, the number of wild steelhead returning to the Skagit River has grown from a low of about 2,500 in 2009 to an average of 7,600 in recent years.

While that remains well below historical numbers, it was enough growth for the state and tribes to agree to allow some catch and release fishing starting in 2018. A catch and release season is now open for the second year in a row.

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

Load comments