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State designates two rivers wild steelhead habitat

 

August 17, 2016



Wild Steelheaders United and Trout Unlimited praised the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision, to designate the Elwha and Nisqually Rivers as Wild Steelhead Gene Banks. The groups strongly urged the agency also to manage the Skagit River watershed for wild steelhead.

Trout Unlimited (TU) and Wild Steelheaders United have been strong advocates for designation of the Elwha as a wild steelhead gene bank, and believe the Nisqually has qualities that make it a good choice for this designation as well.

“These are forward-thinking decisions in difficult times for steelhead managers. While there is a clear conservation benefit, restoring wild steelhead in these rivers also will improve fishing opportunity over time,” said John McMillan, steelhead science director at TU.   

Gene banks are rivers managed exclusively to protect, restore and sustain wild steelhead. Hatchery steelhead are excluded from rivers with this designation, to protect wild fish from the harmful effects of hatchery-raised fish such as interbreeding and competition for food and habitat.

State policy requires the Department to establish wild steelhead gene banks throughout Washington. The decision announced today followed a lengthy public process last summer to determine the best candidate rivers in three regions of Puget Sound—the North Sound, South Sound and Hood Canal/Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Scott Willison, owner of the Confluence Fly Shop in Bellingham, said, “This announcement is much appreciated, but there remains a big missing piece—establishing a gene bank for the North Sound. The entire Skagit River watershed should be managed exclusively for wild steelhead because it is by far the most productive wild steelhead river in Puget Sound—it produces more than half of the Sound’s wild fish. Instead of putting this robust wild population at risk with hatchery plants, we should double-down on habitat improvements to enable the wild population to continue to grow while providing sustainable fishing opportunity.”

About 9,000 wild steelhead have returned to the Skagit for the past several years, enough to provide both a tribal harvest fishery and an opportunity for sport anglers to catch-and-release wild steelhead. 

“The science is rock-solid. Wild steelhead produce more offspring and survive better than hatchery-raised steelhead,” McMillan said. “When you have the habitat and a relatively large wild steelhead population like the Skagit does, managing it exclusively for wild steelhead makes sense both for conservation and fishing.”

The Department has yet to designate a North Sound river as a wild steelhead gene bank despite the fact that more than 91 percent of respondents in the Department’s public process strongly supported designation of entire Skagit watershed.

“A strong, consistent wild steelhead population in the Skagit is good for my business and for other businesses along the Skagit,” said Willison.

In addition, managing the Skagit watershed for wild steelhead was supported by a large majority of members of a citizen advisory group convened by the Department in 2011 to provide advice on wild fish management and hatcheries. 

“A strong, consistent wild steelhead population in the Skagit is good for my business and for other businesses along the Skagit,” said Willison. “Some anglers mistakenly think you need to have a hatchery to fish for steelhead, but that is simply not true. The most popular winter steelhead fishery in Washington is the Sol Duc River, a wild steelhead gene bank. The Department should not only designate the Skagit watershed as a gene bank, it should also open a sustainable catch-and-release sport fishery to return anglers to this legendary steelhead river.”

“We commend the Department for its commitment to manage the Elwha and Nisqually Rivers exclusively for wild steelhead,” said McMillan. “We are particularly pleased with the designation of the Elwha, which has great potential to produce fishable runs of wild steelhead now that two large, fish-blocking dams have been removed.”

 

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