Op-Ed: Rebuilding wild steelhead populations means more fishing opportunity

Discussion in 'Steelhead' started by Jonathan Stumpf, Jun 6, 2014.

  1. From the Bellingham Herald:
    The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's recent decision to stop planting hatchery-raised, winter-run steelhead in most Puget Sound rivers for two-and-a-half years and in the Skagit River for 12 years was big news, and for good reason -- steelhead inspire great passion among anglers.
    Media coverage of the decision has focused on disappointment expressed by some recreational anglers because, in their view, the loss of these hatchery fish will reduce fishing opportunity. As avid steelhead anglers ourselves, we share the concern about lost opportunity, but see the department's decision as a positive development.
    Decades of data from Puget Sound rivers show the widespread planting of hatchery-bred, winter-run steelhead derived from a population in Chambers Creek in south Puget Sound has not improved steelhead harvest or fishing opportunity. As more hatchery fish were planted both harvest and wild steelhead numbers have plummeted.
    And in recent years, the opportunity to even fish for steelhead practicing catch-and-release has declined dramatically. Winter steelhead fishing seasons in Puget Sound that used to extend through April now end by mid-February at the latest, leaving anglers high and dry. In our experience, it is the loss of fishing opportunity - not harvest opportunity, that the vast majority of recreational anglers are most concerned about.
    When the planting of Chambers Creek hatchery fish began, wild steelhead were being harvested at unsustainable rates in sport fisheries. By augmenting the declining wild population with hatchery fish - fish that numerous studies have shown to have low survival rates and harmful impacts on wild steelhead through interbreeding -- these high harvest rates were maintained for a short period of time during which wild steelhead populations were driven even lower.
    This is not to say that hatcheries are solely or even mostly to blame for the dramatic decline of Puget Sound's wild steelhead. In addition to excessive harvest in the past, habitat loss and high mortality of young steelhead in the marine waters of Puget Sound, are major reasons for today's severely depressed wild steelhead populations, estimated to be just a few percent of what they were in the late 1800s. Indeed, several Puget Sound rivers in Hood Canal and the south Sound, such as the Nisqually, have not had Chambers Creek fish planted for many years and yet their wild steelhead populations are in bad shape.
    But the question we should focus on is not what deserves the most blame for the decline of wild steelhead and fishing opportunity; rather, it is what should we do to reverse the trajectory?
    The key to both rebuilding wild steelhead populations and increasing steelhead fishing opportunity is strengthening wild steelhead in rivers with the potential to support abundant, fishable populations - rivers like the Skagit. This will require continuing the habitat protection and restoration work currently underway in western Washington, stopping hatchery operations that impede wild steelhead recovery, and improving the survival of young steelhead as the migrate through the marine waters of Puget Sound.
    To be clear, we are not advocating closing all hatcheries producing steelhead in Puget Sound. It may be appropriate to use steelhead hatcheries as a life-support system for populations on the brink of disappearing or to provide steelhead for harvest in rivers with insufficient habitat to support abundant, fishable wild steelhead populations. Such decisions should be made based on the best available science, not a leap of faith.
    On rivers like the Skagit that have the potential to support fishable wild steelhead populations, the state of Washington will best serve both wild steelhead and Washington's anglers by prioritizing actions, such as habitat protection and restoration and reducing marine mortality, that will rebuild the abundance and diversity of wild steelhead.
    The time is now to make that shift.
    Ed Megill of Bellingham is owner and guide with Cascades Flyfishing. Contribution to this opinion were Hugh Lewis of Bellingham, president of 4th Corner Flyfishers; Chris Johnson, a fishermen and conservationist from Bellingham; and Dave McCoy, owner of Emerald Waters Anglers of Seattle.
    Full Op-Ed here.

  2. Excellent read. Thank you for posting.
    Jonathan Stumpf likes this.
  3. "This is not to say that hatcheries are solely or even mostly to blame for the dramatic decline of Puget Sound's wild steelhead"

    Then why start out by mentioning it at all?

    I wish I could live to another 150 years, to see that hatcheries were most likely the "least" decimating factor in this whole equation...(provided, the continued trend to reduce and/or close hatchery practices stays the course.) ;)
  4. Of course a guide wants the stay river open and is blaming everything else on poor steelhead numbers besides fishing pressure and advertising steelhead fishing for a living.

    Obviously allowing a break in fishing pressure and letting spawning fish do their thing is a smart thing to do in the spring time. Why don't we we all share the responsibly of a steelhead recovery even if that means you can't fish a river for a month or 2?
    sopflyfisher likes this.
  5. I know for a fact that your contention that Ed wants the river to stay open is incorrect. Ed and I disagree on this policy re: the Skagit. Few are more critical of fishing guides than I am, but I can assure you that regarding Ed your contention is incorrect.

    I disagree with you though with regards to what the right thing to do is. I don't believe that C&R fisheries have anything to do with declining steelhead run sizes, especially in the PS. It's a red herring that distracts from actual helpful actions. I don't have a problem closing rivers with low run sizes. I don't like creating false crisis, like has been done with the Skagit's healthy run.

    Go Sox,

  6. Yeah.. I don't think C&R fishing is at the top of the list for declining steelhead runs either. I don't think it helps though so I don't mind when the river with hurting populations is closed for a month or 2. I respect both view points and am hardly being contentious.
  7. Are there things we can do to help steelhead when they are out in the sound?
    sopflyfisher likes this.

  8. THat's the part of the issue that is the hardest to define. There's not a whole hell of a lot we can say about their tracks out in the ocean.....where they're being caught, bycatch, so on and so forth. Oceanic conditions are big, but hell if we can improve stream conditions, that's something we have at least a bit of control over
    FinLuver and Tyler Sadowski like this.
  9. Paul Harvey would have said, "And now, the rest of the story."

    But Salmo ain't Paul Harvey, and so this is just a bit more to the story. Looking at the op-ed:

    "Decades of data from Puget Sound rivers show the widespread planting of hatchery-bred, winter-run steelhead derived from a population in Chambers Creek in south Puget Sound has not improved steelhead harvest or fishing opportunity. As more hatchery fish were planted both harvest and wild steelhead numbers have plummeted."

    The above two sentences take a very narrow view and simply are not correct. When the Chambers Ck hatchery program took off, both steelhead harvests and opportunity in terms of a lengthened season at the front end, took off. Harvest increased, and December steelheading became worthwhile. As more hatchery steelhead were stocked in the 60s and 70s, harvest increased, not decreased, but it is true that wild steelhead abundance declined, so that sentence is half right.

    " In our experience, it is the loss of fishing opportunity - not harvest opportunity, that the vast majority of recreational anglers are most concerned about."

    If you were to poll all anglers who have a steelhead CRC, necessary for steelhead angling, you'd find that a majority feel that steelheading opportunity needs to include a harvest opportunity. Although CNR has increased dramatically in popularity, it's a stretch to call it the vast majority.

    It is good to talk about what needs to be done to reverse the trajectory of declining steelhead populations (hatchery and wild), but in the interest of full disclosure such a conversation would also point out the remote probability of the fullest possible recovery ever again consisting of naturally self-sustaining wild steelhead populations in PS rivers that provide any direct harvest opportunity. So the more important "fishing opportunity" of the future consists, at best, of limited CNR fisheries for wild steelhead, which means that the majority of the anglers who have fished for PS steelhead in the past will not do so in the future. I can live with that because I rarely fish for hatchery winter steelhead, but I do and would fish for hatchery summer steelhead if they are available. I just think it's important to be clear about what the future holds when we ask people to jump on the wild steelhead with no hatchery steelhead option conservation train.

    David Dalan, Patrick Allen and KerryS like this.
  10. Before the marine survival of the Salish steelhead (both wild and hatchery) slide into the abyss the Chambers Creek steelhead hatchery program produced lots of steelhead for harvest. The high water mark was the winter of 1983/84. The Snohomish system that year had a return of Chambers Creek hatchery fish that exceeded 26,000 adults or which nearly 22,000 were harvested (split equally between the tribal and recreational fishers). That same year the Snohomish had a wild run of over 7,000 fish that supported some limited harvest and for the first time there was the popular spring CnR season. Somehow I think that is significant and the preserving the chance something even remotely like that sort of opportunity is worth some effort.

    All that is needed is the restoration of habitat to the conditions of 30 years ago and an up cycle in marine survival. There are growing indications that marine survivals may be improving and if we could just focus attention on STEELHEAD habitat issues instead of red herring issues of hatchery impacts and over harvest (neither of which has been a significant issue in limiting PS steelhead in a couple decades) some of the readers may actually see those good ole days again.

  11. I couldn't put up the link
  12. Here's a crystal ball prediction for you. As the marine survival rate increases, and coincidentally happens right when hatcheries have been clear-cut from the landscape, the actual cause for the rebound in numbers will become hotly debated. Unfortunately, the path of least resistance is to credit the removal of the hatchery fish exclusively and consider the job now done - requiring no further habitat restoration.

    Hopefully it won't take decades to figure it out.
    Salmo_g, KerryS and FinLuver like this.
  13. Link to what?
  14. Quite the opposite. Ed has supported the current closure of the Skagit when the returns were low and in fact he and I have had a few conversations about the Occupy Skagit movement attempting to reinstate the C&R season for the Skagit which have centered around the conservation of the fish. Ed has told me of his reservations to such a move. I respect his opinions and know he would want us to error on the side of the fish even if that means keeping the river closed.

    How ever in the case of hatchery fish I tend to agree with others here that in regards to wild fish run improvements eliminating hatchery steelhead is a red herring and will do little to improve them. I am also worried as others are that if runs improve to much credit will be given to the elimination of hatchery fish and the real causes for run improvement will be ignored.
  15. Kerry: Isn't that like worrying that, if a cure for cancer is discovered, the wrong medical researcher might get the credit? :rolleyes:
    Chris Johnson likes this.
  16. Nooksack Mac -
    A better comparison might be a if after cancer patient with leukemia after having his right arm amputated their cancer goes into remission is to assume that amputating right arms is a key to recovery from leukemia.

    Or in another example if a cancer patient is being treated with a number of experimental treatments and is cured it is to assumed that the easiest/cheapest treatment is essential to the recovery all cancer patients. Assuming so may well mean that the doctors will not be looking at the treatment(s) that really making a difference.

    Alaskan and David Dalan like this.
  17. From 1984/85 to 1989/90 we had double digit wild steelhead returns - look over at the winter -run smolt hatchery release - if this was such a major issue in wild steelhead returns why did it not impede returns in the mid 80's - Ocean conditions, Ocean conditions

    Attached Files:

  18. I would guess that when the biomass of the ocean rebounds our tender little salmon and steelhead morsels will have a better chance of making it back to their river spawning beds.

    Not having hatchery fish sharing the same waters can only help them on their road to success or demise.
    Chris Johnson likes this.

  19. No. I get a cocktail of drugs for my cancer. Some of which are experimental. It would be like if I were cured they decided the wrong experimental drug was responsible and started treating all cancer patients with a drug that does no good. Results; dead cancer patients.
    David Dalan likes this.
  20. I don't think hatcheries are for sure a red herring. There are many ways they could be or could have led to decreased run sizes. I don't think it's wise to turn a blind eye to their known negatives or their unknown potential negatives. Biological interactions are sometimes difficult to study, especially in areas like the open ocean or even the PS. There are many ways that they could lead to increased predation, more effective predation or disease (that would likely lead to them being eaten before he body was found), that we just could not study. To write off these potential impacts from the little we know is the very definition of hubris.

    I am more concerend that we all look for the easiest silver bullet (harvest, c&r impacts) or study the things that are easier and more fun to study (like introgression) rather than focuse on filling in the important gaps in info. The answer to the PS problem may very well lie on the mighty Skagit. Why, when all other rivers declined so sharply, did it remain so much more consistant. For all the concern and worry about her run size. Mama Skagit has held a pretty steady line. Why is she so bad ass? Why do the South sound fish fare so much more poorly than The S rivers and the Nooksack? This seems to be the place to look for answers.

    I sure wish that I thought hatcheries were the reason for PS steelhead declines. It's really hard to get there though, for me. It seems that overall we'd be better looking under more promising rocks than hatcheries and introgression etc.

    One other thought I often have is that fish don't understand borders. At the same time our Salish Sea stocks crashed so did B.C.'s. The big exception was the Vedder. The hatchery on the Vedder is a juggernaught. The Canadians run it differently that we do, but it still dumps in a ton of smolts. The wild runs have been better than the other lower mainland rivers from what I understand. It's smolts would likely take a similar path to the big ocean as the Nooksack, Samish and Skagit fish (see a pattern?)

    Disclaimer: These are my thoughts based on computer based reseach, long rides with SalmoG and a B.A. in environmental science. None of these things make me an expert. My father has called me a sexual intellect, however.

    Go Sox,
    underachiever and Chris Johnson like this.

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