The contentious lawsuit filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy over the release of winter hatchery steelhead appears settled, although the net results have the sport and tribal fishing communities up in arms.
State Fish and Wildlife officials and the Wild Fish Conservancy, a non-profit group, cut a deal that will lead to a drastic cut of 720,000 of the 900,000 young steelhead that were raised in hatcheries and set to be planted this spring into Puget Sound rivers.
The conservancy group’s issue is that hatchery steelhead plants undermine the recovery of Puget Sound wild steelhead, salmon and bull trout, which are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They believe hatchery fish cause negative genetic, ecological and demographic effects.
Under the settlement, state fisheries will release only 180,000 fish in the Skykomish River this spring and in 2015. No other Puget Sound river will receive steelhead.
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“While I am disappointed the agreement does not allow for the release of more of the early-winter hatchery steelhead, I am gratified that we were able to reach agreement to release fish from our Skykomish hatchery in 2014 and support a popular recreational fishery,” state Fish and Wildlife director Phil Anderson said in a news release.
The remaining young fish raised in other hatcheries will be planted into statewide lakes that don’t feed into Puget Sound.
As part of the settlement, the Conservancy cannot sue state fisheries over its hatchery programs for the next 2½ years, or until the National Marine Fisheries Service approves a new fish-planting permit.
State fisheries may release hatchery steelhead into other Puget Sound rivers once the new permit is approved.
State fisheries will also pay $45,000 in litigation expenses to the Conservancy.
“Those in the sport-fishing community felt it was wrong to cut a deal, and we’re very upset,” said Frank Urabeck, a sport-fishing advocate.
Sport and tribal fishermen rely on hatcheries to provide fish to harvest as wild fish populations decline.
“We’re in the phase of analyzing the settlement, and see what effects it will have on the tribe, and then we’ll formulate our next course of action,” said Scott Schuyler, the Upper Skagit Tribe fisheries manager.
In late January, the conservancy group filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue state Fish and Wildlife over its management of the early winter steelhead hatchery programs.