The contentious lawsuit filed recently by the Wild Fish Conservancy over the release of winter hatchery steelhead appears to have been 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 based in Duvall, cut a deal that will lead to a drastic cut in the number of winter steelhead released into the rivers.
Nearly one-million young steelhead were to be released in spring into local rivers that are raised in nine hatcheries, and constitute about two-thirds of all hatchery steelhead production.
Under the new agreement the state will release 180,000 young steelhead into the Skykomish river watershed only this spring and again 2015, and the rest will be planted into statewide lakes that don’t feed into Puget Sound with the Conservancy getting a 14 day advance notice of the plants.
None of the young steelhead will go into any other river system. These fish would be returning as adults to spawn in 2016 and 2017.
The settlement also says the Conservancy will not sue state Fish and Wildlife over its Puget Sound hatchery programs during the next 2 ½ years, or until National Marine Fisheries Service approves those programs, whichever comes first.
In the state fisheries news release a 12-year research program will be established in the Skagit River, during which no early winter steelhead will be released into the watershed. In cooperation with the Conservancy, state Fish and Wildlife will work with tribes to evaluate and potentially implement a steelhead hatchery program in the Skagit River using native steelhead.
The department may release hatchery steelhead into other rivers around Puget Sound when the new permit is approved although it won’t apply to the Skagit River watershed, which will not receive early winter hatchery steelhead releases during the 12-year study period.
State fisheries also has to dish out $45,000 for litigation expenses to the Conservancy.
“While I am disappointed the agreement does not allow for the release of more of the early winter hatchery steelhead we have on hand into Puget Sound rivers, 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.
Sport and tribal fishermen rely on hatcheries to provide fish to harvest as wild fish populations decline.
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission agrees that both hatchery and wild fish are an important part of the fish recovery effort.
“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 fisheries manager for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “From day one when this lawsuit came out we weren’t happy, and felt the settlement (made by state Fish and Wildlife) was premature if not opportunistic.”
Schuyler says the impact of this settlement goes way beyond the young steelhead plants.
“They (state Fish and Wildlife) didn’t take into account the course of action nor did they work together nor consult with us,” Schuyler said. “It is just a bad deal all around.”
In late January, the group filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue state Fish and Wildlife over its management of the (Chambers Creek) early winter steelhead hatchery programs.
On March 31, as the 60-day period wrapped up, the group filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle saying state Fish and Wildlife had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The conservancy group says planting of Chambers Creek steelhead undermines the recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead, salmon and bull trout, which are listed as “threatened” under the ESA.
“Those in the sport fishing community felt it was wrong to cut a deal, and we’re very upset,” said Frank Urabeck, a local sport fishing advocate in Bonney Lake. “If the state had went before a judge we felt they would’ve cut them some slack and allowed fisheries to release all 900,000 in the rivers,” Urabeck said.
“We feel that it will have a long term impact and moving forward the hope is they’ll (the state and federal agencies involved) get the paperwork done so this won’t happen in future years,” Urabeck said. “After all what’s to stop the anti-hatchery folks from taking advantage of it again.”
Phil Anderson, the state Fish and Wildlife director said in an earlier news release that his department is vulnerable to lawsuits over its hatchery steelhead operations because they were not approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service following the ESA listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007.
A state fisheries management plan was submitted in 2005 for its steelhead programs, relative to their potential impacts on Puget Sound wild Chinook, but NMFS had not completed its review.
“It is unfortunate in the way it was handled by the state,” Urabeck said.
The tribes next step is to meet very soon in a small group to “soak it all in” and assess the damage of the settlement and look at what the next course of action will be.
“From the tribes perspective we blame this on the (Wild Fish Conservancy) group, and not the state of Washington,” Schuyler said. “We’re intermingled with the state as co-resource managers and in this together. It is unfortunate it happened this way, and would like to let them understand our issues, which is to have sustainable fish for harvest by all groups. We are forever intertwined.”
To view the state Fish and Wildlife news release, go tohttp://wdfw.wa.gov/news/apr2514b/.
Here is the link to the news release from the Wild Fish Conservancy, go to http://wildfishconservancy.org/about/press-room/press-releases/lawsuit-settlement-big-advance-for-wild-steelhead-recovery.