The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to see at least four Southwest Washington streams identified as wild steelhead strongholds with no planting of hatchery fish beginning in 2014.
Rob Jones, hatcheries and inland fisheries chief for NMFS in Portland, said determining which streams will be a joint effort between the federal fish agency and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Primary steelhead streams
Cascade group summer-run —Kalama, EF Lewis, Washougal
Columbia Gorge group summer-run — Wind, Hood
Cascade group winter-run — Upper Cowlitz, Cispus, SF Toutle, NF Toutle, Coweeman, Kalama, EF Lewis, Clackamas, Sandy.
Columbia Gorge group winter-run — Hood, Lower Columbia Gorge (Duncan, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena, Hardy, Hamilton, Multnomah, Moffet and Tanner creeks)
The hatchery steelhead program in Southwest Washington, which plants fish in 13 streams, is not in compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act, said Jones.
NMFS, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, funds most of the steelhead hatchery programs, in addition to many salmon hatcheries in Southwest Washington.
Jones said NMFS fears that hatchery steelhead are spawning with wild steelhead, jeopardizing survival of the wild fish.
Research starting in the late 1970s on the Kalama River in Cowlitz County showed that hatchery summer steelhead are less fit and survive at a lesser rate than wild fish, Jones said.
It also showed when hatchery fish spawn with wild fish, the offspring are less fit, he added.
Research on Washington’s Forks Creek and Oregon’s Hood and Deschutes rivers, plus elsewhere, showed the same finding, he said.
“NOAA believes it’s risky to rely too much on hatcheries and that some areas that are important to steelhead should not be planted with hatchery fish,’’ Jones said.
To that end, the federal and state agencies plan multi-year studies in the East Fork of the Lewis River and elsewhere to examine naturally spawning steelhead and verify how much gene flow there is from hatchery fish into the wild stocks.
“We’re working with the department to identify places where we would have hatchery programs, but also places where we would not,’’ Jones said.
Southwest Washington’s hatchery steelhead stocks are not native to the area, he said.
Hatchery winter steelhead originated from Chambers Creek, a Puget Sound tributary.
And while hatchery summer steelhead called “Skamania stock’’ originated from the Washougal River, decades of hatchery breeding have changed the fish.
“Selection in the hatchery generation after generation has resulted in a fish that survives well in the hatchery, but not so well in nature,’’ Jones said. “The hatcheries have selected for traits that resulted in a fish that no longer acts like a fish that’s adapted to the lower Columbia.’’
There are four “major population groups’’ (two winter-run groups and two summer-run groups) in Southwest Washington and NMFS wants at least one primary stream in each group free of hatchery plants.
Jones said NMFS realizes steelhead fishing is important in Southwest Washington.
“These changes are going to make sense for the fish and the fishermen,’’ he said. “We’re going to also offer the department some ideas on how to provide additional angling opportunity.’’
Steelhead smolts have been released for 2013. In the streams selected as wild steelhead strongholds, the first year without returning adult hatchery fish will be 2016.
“We’re not saying hatchery production has to drop,’’ Jones said. “But let’s tailor these hatcheries to the lower Columbia.’’
Cindy LeFleur, regional program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency has been working for several years to change its steelhead management in Southwest Washington to improve wild fish populations yet maintain sport fisheries.
The department, in conjunction with stakeholder work groups, are developing watershed steelhead plans that will include creation of wild winter steelhead gene banks in the North Fork Toutle and Green rivers in the Cascade group and a wild summer steelhead gene bank in Wind River in the Columbia Gorge group.
The watershed plans are being developed under the department’s Statewide Steelhead Management Plan.
According to the state plan, a steelhead gene bank is a population sufficiently abundant and productive to be self-sustaining and where no releases of hatchery-origin steelhead will occur in streams where spawning of the population occurs or in streams used exclusively by that stock for rearing.
Work groups also are providing recommendations on topics such as natural production goals, hatchery production, fishing regulations and monitoring needs.
A public meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the agency’s Vancouver office, 2108 Grand Blvd., to start the watershed planning which will designate a wild steelhead gene bank from a group of waters including the East Fork Lewis, North Fork Lewis and Washougal rivers, plus Salmon Creek.
Wild steelhead populations are stable and near recovery plan targets in many lower Columbia River tributaries, LeFleur said.
Hatchery steelhead releases in the East Fork of the Lewis, Coweeman and South Fork Toutle — all primary streams — were cut significantly beginning in 2009. The cuts were to address new federal guidelines on hatchery programs.
In the East Fork Lewis, hatchery winter steelhead releases of 60,000 smolts meet the federal goal of fewer than 5 percent hatchery fish on the spawning grounds based on modeling results.
Yet to reach the state’s plan of less than 2 percent gene flow from hatchery to wild stocks, the department plans to further reduce the winter steelhead release from 60,000 smolts to 38,000 beginning in 2014.
LeFleur said the state has initiated creel programs on steelhead streams in Southwest Washington to verify catch-record cards, estimate wild fish handle and estimate the harvest rate, if possible.
A hooking mortality study is under way on the Wind River to develop mortality rate estimates for summer steelhead from catch-and-release sport fishing.
The programs are funded by the $8.25 Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement Fee paid by anglers.