OLYMPIA – A new steelhead management plan designed to protect and rebuild wild stocks throughout the state won approval by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission at a public meeting here March 8.
Drawing on decades of research, the plan developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) sets out a variety of new conservation policies to guide fisheries management, hatchery operations and habitat-restoration programs statewide.
Those policies provide a framework for regional management plans that will detail measures needed to protect and restore wild steelhead stocks in specific watersheds around the state. Key provisions of the statewide plan include:
- A clear statement that protection and restoration of wild steelhead stocks is the state’s highest priority in all aspects of steelhead management.
- Specific limits on genetic mixing between hatchery steelhead and wild fish in different types of hatchery operations. It also calls for the establishment of in-stream “gene banks” where wild stocks are protected from interaction with hatchery fish.
- A new focus on protecting wild steelhead through habitat-restoration programs and state fish-passage laws.
- A directive that WDFW establish performance goals for each wild steelhead stock and benchmarks for achieving them.
Developed over the past two years with extensive public review, the new steelhead-management plan won unanimous approval from the nine-member commission that sets policy for WDFW.
“This is an important step in a long-term effort to protect and restore wild steelhead stocks in our state,” said Jerry Gutzwiler, commission chair. “We still have strong returns of wild steelhead in some areas of the state, but we can’t afford to be complacent. We have a responsibility to make sure wild steelhead have a future throughout the state.”
As a step toward developing the statewide plan, WDFW conducted a scientific assessment that found more than 90 percent of the wild steelhead runs on the Olympic Peninsula and 60 percent in southwest Washington to be “healthy.” But since 1992, steelhead populations returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers – and, as of last year, Puget Sound – have been listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In listing those stocks, NOAA Fisheries cited loss of freshwater habitat from land-development practices as the principle threat to wild steelhead. The new statewide management plan directs WDFW to sharpen its focus on steelhead conservation through habitat-restoration programs and enforcement of state fish-passage laws.
The statewide plan also sets new standards for fisheries management, although many of the strategies it recommends are already in evidence on the fishing grounds. Since the mid-1990s, for example, the selective fishing rules, requiring the release of wild, unmarked steelhead, have played a major role in protecting wild stocks and genetic traits critical to their survival.
For that reason, NOAA Fisheries did not find fisheries to present a significant risk to wild steelhead in last year’s ESA listing of Puget Sound stocks.
The statewide plan does, however, establish several new standards for hatchery programs, including specific limits on levels of genetic mixing between hatchery steelhead and wild fish. Meeting those standards may require reducing or altering hatchery production, which could affect the availability of hatchery fish for anglers, said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings.
“The new steelhead plan recognizes the value of state fisheries, but reinforces the idea that conservation of wild stocks has to be our first priority,” Koenings said. “That same theme will be reflected in the regional management plans, which will essentially establish steelhead action plans for seven areas of the state.”
Those regional plans are scheduled for completion in 2010-2011, Koenings said. As with the statewide plan, the public will have an opportunity to participate in the development of those regional plans.
“We really support all the public comments we received in developing the statewide plan, and encourage public involvement as the focus moves to the regional plans,” Koenings said.
Information on the statewide steelhead plan is available on WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fish/steelhead/index.htm.
In other action, the commission approved acquisition of two properties in Eastern Washington for wildlife conservation and received staff briefings on several proposed hunting rules. The commission is scheduled to take action on those proposals April 11-12 in Pasco. For more information on future meetings, see the commission’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/com/comintro.htm.