Skagit River steelhead at a crossroads

Mike Bartlett, non-tribal natural resources technician working with the Upper Skagit Tribe’s steelhead research, inserts a visible tag behind the eye of a steelhead on March 13, 2015.

A new package of ideas for how to restore the region’s threatened steelhead trout, including recommendations for the Skagit River, has been presented to state Department of Fish & Wildlife leaders.

The Fish & Wildlife Commission heard last week from some of those who served on a 13-member Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group organized in 2017. Over the past three years, the group studied information about steelhead — the official state fish — and developed recommendations in a report called “QuickSilver: Restoring Puget Sound steelhead & fisheries.”

Steelhead populations are at varying levels of concern in different rivers, but region-wide the number of fish that return to spawn in those rivers is less than 10% of its historical population, according to a federal recovery plan released last year.

Andrew Marks, of the Coastal Conservation Association and who served on the advisory group, said he’s concerned that unless recommended actions are taken, the species could become endangered.

“The trajectory is still downward,” Marks said. “We are playing with the last of the species.”

Marks said the 46-page document provided to the Fish & Wildlife Commission is a roadmap for engaging tribal co-managers and community members in deciding how to proceed.

“This QuickSilver portfolio gets us to a starting point where we can take this to people to get them to understand there’s a problem that needs to be addressed, there’s a plan to address it and we need their support,” Marks said.

The recommendations include four main components: Monitoring populations, studying hatchery impacts, maintaining and monitoring fishing opportunities, and conducting watershed-scale experiments with varying levels of hatchery and fishery operations on four river systems.

The watershed experiments are proposed for the Skagit and Samish rivers, as well as the neighboring Nooksack and Stillaguamish rivers.

The proposal for the Skagit River is to continue offering a spring catch and release fishery and not operate a hatchery program. On the Samish, the plan is to assess wild steelhead management and work toward allowing a catch and release fishery.

For monitoring, the advisory group also proposes trying new technology on the Skagit and Nooksack rivers, to count returning steelhead using sonar.

The Skagit River is unique in its catch and release for wild steelhead, which started in 2018 following the closure of a hatchery program a few years earlier. That provides an opportunity to observe whether conservation and fishing are compatible long term.

“We need to maintain funding to monitor the Skagit catch and release fishery. ... The Skagit used to be a worldwide destination for fly fishing for steelhead, and people did come from across the country to partake in that catch and release fishery last year when it was open,” Marks said.

The fishery wasn’t able to continue this spring due to a low forecast for returning fish. Restoring a more robust and stable population of Skagit River fish is particularly important to local anglers.

“Steelhead are an important part of our cultural heritage on the Skagit River, and historically provided an important boost to the local economy,” advisory group members of the local Wildcat Steelhead Club wrote in the new document.

The Fish & Wildlife Commission hasn’t decided how to use the QuickSilver recommendations, but several commissioners expressed excitement.

“Let’s get moving on this ... so we can start applying the hard work that you’ve done to recovery now,” Commissioner Dave Graybill said. “I’m very eager to see some guidance on where we can start.”

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

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