East Fork Lewis recommended as wild steelhead gene bank

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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It's not a done deal, but it appears close to certain that hatchery summer steelhead releases will be eliminated in the East Fork of the Lewis River. The next question: Will winter steelhead planting in the East Fork be ended, too?

The Steelhead Management Work Group is an assembly of 20 volunteers organized by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to advise the agency on steelhead issues in the North Fork of the Lewis, East Fork of the Lewis and Washougal rivers, plus Salmon Creek.

Chief among the work group's tasks is recommending the location of a wild steelhead gene bank among the four streams.

The Statewide Steelhead Management Plan calls for creation of a network of gene banks, watersheds where wild steelhead stocks largely are protected from the effects of hatchery programs and may result in the elimination of hatchery plants.

The National Marine Fisheries Service also has told the state it wants to see the risks to wild steelhead populations lessened.

When wild and hatchery steelhead interbreed, the offspring are less fit and survive at a lower rate. Interbreeding with hatchery steelhead is considered a significant factor in the decline of wild steelhead populations.

Actually, the Steelhead Management Work Group's choices for a wild steelhead gene bank location were between the East Fork of the Lewis and Washougal rivers, or both.

Salmon Creek does not meet the criteria to qualify, plus it has no summer steelhead. Fish populations in the North Fork of the Lewis River are largely determined by the federal license issued to PacifiCorp to operate Merwin, Yale and Swift dams.

After four meetings, the Steelhead Management Work Group has come to consensus that the East Fork of the Lewis should be designated a wild summer steelhead gene bank.

That means the 15,000 summer steelhead smolts that are raised at Skamania Hatchery on the North Fork of the Washougal River and trucked to the East Fork will be goners.

The group still is debating whether to eliminate the 38,000 winter steelhead smolts which are designated for release in the East Fork.

Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, a work group member, is an advocate for eliminating all steelhead plants in the East Fork Lewis and seeing how the wild fish respond.

Fishing for hatchery steelhead in the East Fork of the Lewis has been mostly poor for the last decade,'' Wickersham said.

Catch-and-release fishing for wild steelhead and catch-and-keep fishing for the hatchery steelhead that stray into the East Fork Lewis from the North Fork of the Lewis are possible, Wickersham said.

"It doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion we lose our fishery,'' he said.

Keith Hyde, president of the Columbia River chapter of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and also a work group member, said he supports a summer steelhead gene bank in the East Fork, but not for winter steelhead.

"This is a grand experiment,'' Hyde said. "I think we have to enter it cautiously. There's much scientific data that remains to be proven.''

The work group also reached consensus that the state continue its current steelhead management on the Washougal River, which gets plants of both winter and summer hatchery steelhead.

The main stem of the Washougal River upstream of Dougan Falls is a de facto gene bank for summer steelhead current. Winter steelhead can't pass the falls and only a small number of hatchery summer steelhead can make it.

Eric Kinne, hatchery reform coordinator for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said additional winter and summer steelhead can be stocked in the Washougal and Kalama rivers to relocate those that had been going in the East Fork of the Lewis.

Salmon Creek also can take more winter steelhead.

The state has limitations on the number of hatchery steelhead that can be released in each watershed so that the hatchery fish don't overwhelm wild fish on the spawning grounds.

The work group meets next at 1 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Department of Fish and Wildlife office, 2108 Grand Blvd.