Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fish managers will release “early winter” hatchery steelhead into inland lakes again this year, now that federal fisheries officials have decided to conduct a full-scale environmental impact analysis of all Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs.
WDFW leaders announced the action after learning that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has decided to develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate the effects of early winter steelhead hatchery programs on the survival and recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead and chinook salmon, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The decision was based, in part, on more than 2,000 public comments to NMFS that expressed a wide range of questions and concerns about the environmental impact of hatchery steelhead programs.
In March, NMFS (also known as NOAA Fisheries) published a draft environmental assessment of hatchery steelhead programs in three river basins. WDFW officials had hoped NMFS’ completion of the assessment would lead to approval of WDFW steelhead hatchery operations and clear the way for the release of steelhead into several Puget Sound rivers under terms of a federal court settlement last year. However, the additional time needed to complete a more detailed EIS means that a decision on approval of these hatchery programs will come after the release window for 2015.
“We support the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead, but we are disappointed that NMFS has been unable to complete the review of these programs,” said WDFW Director Jim Unsworth. “The decision by NMFS to conduct a full and potentially lengthy EIS process will delay approval of these hatchery programs and have serious impacts on recreational fishing on several Puget Sound rivers.”
However, Unsworth said WDFW understands the controversial nature of the subject, as well as the federal government’s desire to analyze hatchery programs within a full-scale EIS that stands up to potential legal challenges and clears the way for hatcheries to stay in operation for the long-term.
Last year the Wild Fish Conservancy of Duvall sued WDFW, alleging that the department’s Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs violated the Endangered Species Act by impairing the recovery of wild steelhead, salmon, and bull trout. In settling that case, the department agreed to refrain from planting early winter (Chambers Creek) steelhead into most rivers in the Puget Sound region until NMFS completed its environmental review.
Until recently, WDFW officials believed the federal agency’s timetable would allow the release of juvenile steelhead into several rivers this spring, but those plans have now been canceled. One exception is the release of 180,000 early winter steelhead into the Skykomish River, which is permitted under the federal court order approving the settlement.
Jim Scott, head of the WDFW Fish Program, said rivers that will not receive steelhead in 2015 include the Nooksack, Stillaguamish and Dungeness, which would have received 150,000, 130,000, and 10,000 steelhead, respectively. Earlier this year, NMFS announced it would conduct a full EIS for hatcheries that release steelhead into the Snoqualmie and Green rivers, which were slated to receive 74,000 and 70,000 fish, Scott said.
Instead of releasing juvenile steelhead into those five rivers, WDFW will plant them into inland waters that have no connection with Puget Sound, he said. WDFW will announce its fish planting schedule as soon as possible on the department’s website: http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/reports_plants.html.