Anglers irked at Green/North Toutle wild steelhead proposal

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CENTRALIA — A proposal to eliminate hatchery steelhead fishing on the Green and North Fork of the Toutle rivers drew opposition from most people who testified during a boisterous meeting at Centralia College.

Speakers last week objected to losing a fishery that attracts anglers from afar in late spring and summer.

Related information

• WDFW’s recommendations for the North Fork Toutle/Green River watershed and other rivers proposed as gene banks are posted on the agency’s website. http://wdfw.wa.go...>

• The next meeting of the work group discussing gene banks in the Lewis, Salmon Creek and Washougal watersheds will begin at 1 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2108 Grand Blvd.

However, several anglers supported the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s suggestion that stocking of hatchery summer steelhead be ended to create a wild steelhead sanctuary in the two rivers.

Both state and the National Marine Fisheries Service management plans call for designating four Southwest Washington rivers as wild steelhead gene pools. Extensive research has shown that hatchery steelhead compete with wild fish for habitat.

Both federal and state fishery agencies are focusing on helping stocks of wild fish recover because of they’re much more resilient than fish raised in hatcheries.

Biologists and advisory groups that have been meeting since 2011 have suggested that either the Coweeman River or the North Fork Toutle/Green become a wild steelhead sanctuary.

Several people who commented said the Coweeman would be a more logical place to eliminate hatchery steelhead because public access there is even more limited than on the Green.

“You’re leaning toward the wrong river,” said Clancy Holt, a Chehalis fishing guide. He pointed out that some of the steelhead stocked in the Green get caught in the Cowlitz or Columbia rivers.

“There’s tremendous summer steelhead fishing in the lower Cowlitz River,” Holt said. “They’re fished. They’re caught. They’re enjoyed. You can’t take those fish away. You’re making the biggest blunder you’ve ever made.”

“There is no public access on the lower Coweeman,” said Tim Deaver of Toutle. “Go to the Green River parking lot at 3 a.m. You can’t get a parking spot.”

State statistics that show that in 2012, anglers reported catching 1,432 steelhead on the Green compared to only 113 on the Coweeman, Randy LeDuc of Centralia pointed out. He added that WDFW has invested in a hatchery on the Green, though there isn’t one on the Coweeman.

Though WDFW has moved the Coweeman’s upper fishing boundary 8 miles upstream, to Baird Creek, to create more angler opportunity, most of the lower Coweeman is bordered by private property.

Fishing access to the Green River has been restricted in the past few years as Weyerhaeuser Co., which owns most of the land around the river, has closed its lands to motorized public access.

And in summer, WDFW installs a weir in the river at the Green River Hatchery water intake specifically to stop hatchery steelhead from moving upstream. Theoretically, this limits steelhead fishing to the lower 1.5 miles of the river, though high water flows have prevented the agency from getting the weir installed in time to intercept all the steelhead.

Another reason for designating the North Fork of the Toutle as a steelhead sanctuary is the fact the river is already closed to fishing above the Army Corps of Engineers sediment retaining dam.

Several wild fish advocates said the number of hatchery fish that would be lost to anglers would be relatively small, less than 2 percent of the number released into the Columbia River system.

Jason Small of Olympia, a representative of the Native Fish Society, said he’d like to be able to keep a fish to eat, “I love the opportunity to go out and bring dinner home to my family,” he said, but the need to preserve wild fish may not permit it. “I have to look beyond my own self-interest.”

WDFW has already been through a similar dispute on the Coweeman. In 2008, the agency announced it would end steelhead plants on the Coweeman, only to back off the following year after complaints by anglers.

WDFW now stocks the Green with 25,000 summer steelhead smolts annually, though stocking on the Coweeman has been reduced to 12,000 from as high as 40,000 in the 1990s.

In years past, the agency has also proposed making the South Fork of the Toutle a wild fish sanctuary, an idea that also drew vehement protests from anglers.

Jim Scott, WDFW assistant director for fisheries, said the agency has received 650 written comments about the gene bank options. The agency hasn’t set a deadline for making a decision, though a representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service has said that federal agency would like stocking to end this year.

Though the meeting last week was focused on the Toutle and Green, anglers also complained about diminishing fishing opportunity on the Cowlitz.

“The Cowlitz River used to be the No. 1steelhead producing fishery” in the state, said Penny Lancaster of Toledo, which brought a round of applause from the approximately 100 people who attended the meeting.

“For a variety of reasons our opportunities are shrinking and you guys aren’t doing a damn thing about it,” said Bill Thurston of Toledo. “You’re letting it happen and you’re almost encouraging it.”