Steelhead gene bank on East Fork Lewis gets support

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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A proposal designating the East Fork of the Lewis River as a wild steelhead gene bank and ending the release of hatchery steelhead got a warm response at a public meeting Thursday night.

"This is a great opportunity,'' said Mark Sherwood of the Native Fish Society. "We're most likely to see results most quickly in the lower Columbia River.''

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is considering to end formally releases of hatchery steelhead in three tributaries to the Columbia.

The approach was recommended by three advisory groups in the past two years. The other two streams are the North Fork Toutle-Green river and Wind River, which has not been stocked since 1997.

Gene banks are one of a number of strategies endorsed by the department's Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, adopted in 2008.

Under the recommendations for the lower Columbia, the agency plans to plant 35,000 steelhead smolts currently earmarked for the East Fork Lewis River in the Washougal River and 20,000 in Salmon Creek.

The department is still looking for a place to relocate the 25,000 smolts currently scheduled for the North Fork Toutle/Green River watershed, said Cindy LeFleur, regional fish program manager.

State biologist Bryce Glaser said research shows interbreeding between hatchery and wild steelhead results in offspring that do not contribute as well to future populations.

Sara LaBorde of the Wild Salmon Center called the recommendations "outstanding.''

Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield said the East Fork of the Lewis has a genetic legacy of producing large wild winter steelhead.

"There are compelling economic reasons to protect these fish,'' he said, noting that anglers will pay lots of money to fish for large steelhead in the Dean River of British Columbia.

"I think there's real room for success here,'' Wickersham added.

Don Fish of the Vancouver Wildlife League said the East Fork of the Lewis River is a great place to take a family fishing, with good access close to an urban area.

He suggested the gene bank be in a "remote area to get more genetic purity.''

Fish called doubling the winter steelhead hatchery release from 20,000 to 40,000 smolts in Salmon Creek as mitigation for making the East Fork Lewis a gene bank a "joke.''

"Salmon Creek is a tiny stream,'' he said. "It can't compare with the East Fork of the Lewis.''

Final recommendations on the plan to create gene banks in the basin will be forwarded to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees salmon and steelhead recovery on the Columbia River.

In January, the work group for the Lewis, Washougal and Salmon Creek watersheds is scheduled to discuss possible angling regulations in the streams.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife also plans to create another advisory group to recommend a gene bank from among the Chinook, Elochoman and Grays rivers, plus Abernathy, Mill, Germany and Skamokawa creeks.