Change is coming in how steelhead anglers fish the Nisqually and Elwha rivers to boost wild steelhead populations.
Under this new ruling approved by state Fish and Wildlife, anglers fishing the Nisqually and Elwha both rivers will need to keep all steelhead raised in state hatcheries, which can endanger wild steelhead by interbreeding and/or competition for spawning areas. Fishing will be allowed if wild steelhead runs to those rivers are strong enough to allow it.
Both rivers meet the criteria for gene banks established in the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan to help reverse the long-term decline of wild steelhead returning to rivers in Washington state, Jim Scott, a special assistant to the state Fish and Wildlife director said in a news release.
“The Nisqually and Elwha rivers can play a major role in the recovery of wild steelhead populations in the Puget Sound area,” Scott said. “This new designation, along with other conservation efforts already underway, will help us reach that goal.”
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Other options included the Skagit and Sauk rivers, but were delayed designating a wild steelhead gene bank in northern Puget Sound pending further review. A decision will be made after discussions with the state fisheries advisory group and treaty tribal co-managers.
Under a 2014 court settlement, state fisheries agreed to stop releasing early winter hatchery steelhead in the Skagit River through 2025 although a proposal being considered is to release steelhead raised from local stock at the Marblemount Hatchery.
“Most public comments received by the department support the designation of the entire Skagit River as a gene bank, but some are concerned about the potential impact on fisheries and the local economy,” Scott said. “We are committed to establishing at least one wild steelhead gene bank in North Cascades region, but plan to convene an advisory group to discuss the options in greater detail before proceeding.”
The Elwha received the most support since it is recovering from a major dam removal in 2012 and wild steelhead in this river remain genetically distinct even though hatchery steelhead were released in 2011. The Elwha now has more than 40 miles of additional spawning and rearing habitat, much of it inside Olympic National Park.
A temporary hatchery program by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to restore the river’s steelhead population will be completed when the river conditions improve and restoration objectives for wild steelhead are met.
The Nisqually was an ideal candidate since there are ongoing efforts by the Nisqually River Council to protect and restore fish habitat. There haven’t been any hatchery steelhead released since 1982, and the wild steelhead spawning has increased to more than 1,000 fish in 2015 and more than 2,000 in 2016.
There are now 14 designated wild steelhead gene banks in watersheds around the state.