Thousands of hatchery-raised steelhead kept out of Dungeness River

Steelhead fishery slows, but plenty of pink salmon are expected

Thousands of steelhead raised at the Dungeness Hatchery weren’t released into the Dungeness for the second consecutive year.

Instead the 10,000 steelhead, a sea-run rainbow trout, were some of nearly 300,000 that won’t be making it to the sea via the Dungeness, Nooksack or Stillaguamish rivers.

Concerns with whether hatchery steelhead negatively impact or weaken the genetics of wild steelhead are at the root of the decision made by officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service to keep hatchery steelhead from potentially interacting with wild populations.

To ensure the hatchery-raised fish won’t have access to Puget Sound and thus wild steelhead, they were planted in lakes.

Steelhead typically released in May into the Dungeness River from local hatchery stock were instead transported to Saint Clair Lake in Lacey, according to Steve Thiesfeld, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 6 fish program manager.

Waiting on EIS

Despite the National Marine Fisheries Service’s conclusion that “the proposed action does not pose unacceptable risk through gene flow to Puget Sound steelhead,” in their Draft Environmental Assessment released in March that analyzed three early winter steelhead programs for the Dungeness, Nooksack and Stillaguamish river basins submitted by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Jamestown S’Klallam, Lummi Nation, Nooksack, Stillaguamish and Tulalip tribes as co-managers of the fisheries resource, the agency opted to pursue an Environmental Impact Statement.

The decision came after more than 2,000 public comments were received in reaction to the draft.

“Because there were so many public comments we decided we needed to take the more thorough route and do an Environmental Impact Statement,” Michael Milstein, public affairs officer for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service West Coast Region, said.

Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service are in the midst of conducting the Environmental Impact Statement and “hope to have a draft version by the end of the year,” Milstein said, but it may not be done until 2016.

Until a decision based on the Environmental Impact Statement is made by the National Marine Fisheries Service, no hatchery steelhead will be released into the Dungeness, Nooksack and Stillaguamish rivers.

Following its release the draft will be available for public comment before a final decision is made, he said.

“We realize this is a disappointment to some, but it’s our responsibility to ensure Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans are in compliance with the Endangered Species Act,” Milstein said.

Puget Sound steelhead are among the four federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act that utilize the Dungeness River. Other threatened species include Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal chum and bull trout.

In doing the Environmental Impact Statement, the agency must make sure Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans also comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The Environmental Assessment is the first stage of the review process under National Environmental Policy Act,” Milstein said.

National Marine Fisheries Service officials believe that artificial breeding and rearing steelhead is “likely to result in some genetic change” in hatchery fish and their progeny when they interbreed with fish from natural populations, but genetic analysis by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials aren’t showing this.

“We’re not seeing any integration from hatchery steelhead,” Mike Gross, regional fish biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said. “But, the key is the early time steelhead.”

Hatchery steelhead have been released in the Dungeness River for decades, according to Gross, however they’re released before the natural steelhead runs occur to reduce interaction and chance of interbreeding. Also, the number of hatchery steelhead have been limited to 10,000 to be compatible with wild steelhead.

But, with 10,000 fewer steelhead in the Dungeness River, coupled with the previous year’s 10,000 also kept from the river, Gross anticipates a reduction for recreational fisherman.

“There might be a handful of fisherman that would normally fish the Dungeness for steelhead,” he said.

Plenty of pinks

The hatchery steelhead fishery may be on pause, but Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials are forecasting a large pink salmon run returning to the Dungeness River.

Pink salmon return to the river every two years to spawn, Gross explained, and because about 29 million were documented leaving the river in spring of 2014, about 1.3 million are anticipated to return depending on how forgiving the ocean was, he said.

“Whether it’s 200,000 or 1.3 million, it’s still a lot of fish … it’s unprecedented,” he said.

Officials aren’t entirely sure why there’s been a sudden increase in pink salmon returning, Gross said, but two years ago pink salmon also returned in large numbers, resulting in about 400,000 fish.

However, unlike two years ago the drought conditions and thus low river flow coinciding with the large pink run and relatively few federally threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon forecasted to return are cause for concern.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” Gross said. “The pinks may respond to the low flows and go elsewhere.”

The pink salmon are expected to begin their journey up the Dungeness River in mid-July.

To prepare, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials have added a new one-month recreational fishery for pink salmon in Dungeness Bay opening July 16. Carefully monitored tribal and non-tribal commercial fisheries also will be taking place within the bay in response to the pink run.

“We’re looking forward to providing people with an opportunity some have been waiting more than 50 years for,” Gross said.

A secondary benefit to the special fishery is it may help manage the number of pink attempting to swim up river and in doing so could crowd the Puget Sound chinook.

“There are specific regulations put in place to avoid chinook,” Gross said.

For example, only single-point barbless hooks are permitted.

Despite potential impacts associated with so many pink salmon returning to the Dungeness River, especially during a drought, Gross expects the event to be an “incredible learning opportunity.”

Download WDFW fishing regulations for July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016, at