State to halt Puget Sound winter steelhead releases

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OLYMPIA — The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says it will not release early winter hatchery steelhead into rivers around Puget Sound this spring unless it can resolve issues raised in January by the Wild Fish Conservancy and restated in a lawsuit the group filed this week.

Agency director Phil Anderson said the Conservancy, a non-profit group based in Duvall, Wash., filed in late January a 60-day notice of intent to sue the department over its management of Chambers Creek stock steelhead hatchery programs.

On Monday, as the 60-day period ended, the group filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle against the department and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, alleging the department has violated the federal Endangered Species Act. The group contends the state’s planting of Chambers Creek steelhead undermines the recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead, salmon and bull trout, which are listed as “threatened” under the ESA.

Anderson said the department planned to releases about 900,000 juvenile steelhead this spring into rivers that flow into Puget Sound. Those fish are produced at nine hatcheries and represent about two-thirds of all hatchery steelhead produced by state hatcheries in the Puget Sound region.

Steelhead planted this spring would return to the rivers in 2016 and 2017.

Anderson said the agency is vulnerable to lawsuits over its hatchery steelhead operations because they were not approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service following the listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007.

Washington submitted Hatchery Genetic Management Plans to NMFS in 2005 for its steelhead programs, relative to their potential impacts on Puget Sound wild chinook salmon. However, NMFS’ review of those plans was not completed.

The state is nearing completion of updates to its steelhead plans to reflect recent hatchery improvements based on the most current science.

“We believe strongly that we are operating safe and responsible hatchery programs that meet exacting, science-based standards,” Anderson said. “But without NMFS certification that our hatchery programs comply with the Endangered Species Act, we remain at risk of litigation. We are working hard to complete that process.”

Jim Scott, an assistant director, said the department and the Conservancy were not able to reach an agreement on steelhead hatchery management practices during the 60-day period, but discussions will continue in the hope of reaching a settlement by early May so that the 2014 plantings can take place.

“Going to court would force us to redirect our staff to defend our programs in litigation, rather than focusing on conservation and restoration of Puget Sound steelhead,” Scott said.

Scott said the department acknowledges that scientific findings indicate certain hatchery practices may pose an impediment to wild fish productivity and recovery.

But he added state managers have reformed hatchery programs and have taken significant steps to protect ESA-listed wild steelhead

Actions since 2004 include:

o Reducing the number of early winter steelhead released in the Puget Sound watershed by more than 50 percent to minimize interactions between hatchery fish and wild steelhead.

o Reducing the number of release locations from 27 to nine.

o Collecting eggs from early-returning hatchery fish to maintain separation in the spawning times of hatchery and wild fish.

“This represents a change from industrial production of salmonids for market fisheries to a more balanced program that includes conservation and recovery of wild steelhead,” said Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society in an email.