Steelhead Woes

Many anglers are puzzled by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s big program stocking lakes with thousands of steelhead smolts this year.

News and rumor of river closures, lawsuits and extraordinary regulations abound from the Skeena to the McKenzie.  Short answer:  several actions  spring from litigation begun last year by the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) and other wild fish and angling advocacy groups over hatchery operations and compliance with the Endangered Species Act in Washington, and elsewhere the steelhead/salmon wars continue.

In a settlement between WDFW and WFC announced April 25, 2014, WDFW agreed to suspend the release of up to 900,000 juvenile steelhead into Puget Sound streams as of 2014.  WDFW retained the ability to place 180,000 fish into the Skykomish in 2014 and 2015.  Release in other Puget Sound rivers is suspended pending individual hatcheries obtaining  Hatchery Genetic Management Plans approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  In turn, WFC agreed to not sue WDFW for 2 ½ years  or until National Marine Fisheries Service approves those plans, whichever comes first.  There are other elements to the settlement, but these are the keys.

In July, WFC joined  other groups and issued notices of intent to sue to the federal operators of the Leavenworth hatchery, and to the federal and tribal operators of the Lower Elwha hatchery alleging that they, too, were  in violation of the Endangered Species Act for hatchery operations.

As a consequence, smolts otherwise destined for Puget Sound have been released to lakes unconnected to Puget Sound, and limits adjusted for anglers. Sprague Lake was one of the early recipients of these fish.

As this litigation proceeds, we can expect quick changes to rules governing steelhead angling in Washington, and annual changes in policy.  Similar actions are underway in Oregon, and BC rules have changed a couple of times in recent years in response to First Nations and others’ concerns. Short answer: check your regs and respective agency webpages to stay current before you go.