We should ensure that we can recover wild steelhead while still providing a fishing opportunity.
STEELHEAD — rainbow trout that migrate to the ocean where they grow large and strong — are the premier freshwater sport fish of the Pacific Northwest. They are Washington’s state fish.
In the Puget Sound region, wild steelhead (produced naturally in rivers) have declined dramatically in recent decades and so has the opportunity to fish for them. They have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2007.
Steelhead anglers are intensely passionate about their pursuit. And they have strong opinions about how their favorite fish should be managed. Over the past two decades, as scientific evidence has revealed that hatchery steelhead can harm wild steelhead and fishing opportunity has dwindled, anglers have become increasingly polarized over whether and how steelhead hatcheries should be used.
This debate has recently become more active since the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, as required by state policy, began the process of designating rivers to be managed exclusively for wild steelhead — so-called Wild Steelhead Gene Banks — in three subregions of Puget Sound: the North Cascades, Central and South Cascades, and Hood Canal/Strait of Juan de Fuca. The public comment period closes Monday.
Trout Unlimited believes the designation of Wild Steelhead Gene Banks presents an opportunity for all steelhead advocates to come together to support a vision that will advance both wild steelhead conservation and fishing opportunity.
This opportunity should be seized.
First and foremost, the Skagit, Elwha and Puyallup/White river basins should be designated as Wild Steelhead Gene Banks. These are large river systems with diverse habitat in relatively good (and in the case of the Elwha, mostly pristine) condition. They are fed by high mountain snowpack, which will be increasingly important as the climate warms. Their wild steelhead populations are either growing or have stabilized.
They also are river basins in which we have made enormous investments in habitat restoration, including more than $350 million to remove the Elwha River dams. On the Skagit, more than $80 million has been spent on habitat restoration, and it is experiencing a surge of wild steelhead that has coincided with the cessation of hatchery stocking. Though more habitat restoration is needed, these rivers have potential to produce abundant, fishable wild steelhead both in the near term and in the decades to come.
Second, in some other river systems that lack such potential, we should experiment with different types of hatchery operations to determine which ones can provide fishing opportunity without jeopardizing wild steelhead. The fact of the matter is that for several decades most steelhead hatchery programs operating in Puget Sound rivers have not improved fishing opportunity. Indeed, steelhead fishing seasons have been shortened or eliminated during that period. It is time for change.
Think of it as a diversified steelhead portfolio. Just like a financial portfolio where risk is spread among different assets, we should diversify management to ensure that we can recover wild steelhead while still providing fishing opportunity.
From a sport fishing perspective, a diversified portfolio would offer a mix of steelhead fishing experiences. Wild Steelhead Gene Banks would provide catch-and-release fishing opportunity and perhaps, over time, even some sport harvest. For those anglers who prefer to harvest the fish they catch, some rivers would have hatcheries designed to provide that opportunity.
Last but not least, this portfolio approach provides the opportunity to conduct large-scale, controlled experiments necessary to improve our knowledge. We need to better understand wild steelhead recovery potential, how to reduce the harmful impacts of hatcheries on wild steelhead, and how to best provide fishing opportunity. It will also ensure that limited resources are spent wisely.
We should not allow deeply held opinions about wild and hatchery steelhead prevent us from finding common ground. We know that it exists. It is time to come together.