OLYMPIA - The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is seeking public comments on a proposal to formally end releases of hatchery steelhead in three tributaries of the lower Columbia River to support the recovery of wild fish.
That approach, recommended by three WDFW advisory groups over the past two years, would eliminate the release of all hatchery-raised steelhead on the East Fork Lewis River and the North Fork Toutle/Green River watershed as early as next year.
It would also prohibit future releases of hatchery steelhead in the Wind River, which has not been stocked with steelhead since 1997.
The department will hold a public meeting to discuss the proposal Dec. 5 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the WDFW Region 5 office in Vancouver, Wash., 2108 Grand Blvd. Comments will also be accepted through Dec. 13 at http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01559/, where the advisory groups' recommendations are posted for review.
Cindy Le Fleur, WDFW regional fish manager, said the proposal would create several "wild stock gene banks" in the lower Columbia River, where wild steelhead populations have been listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1998.
"The goal of this proposal is to preserve key wild steelhead populations by minimizing interference by hatchery-produced fish," Le Fleur said. "Research has shown that those interactions can range from interbreeding to competition for food and habitat."
Gene banks are one of a number of management strategies endorsed by the department's Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, adopted in 2008. WDFW established the state's first official steelhead gene bank last year in the Sol Duc River on the Olympic Peninsula.
Under the recommendations for the lower Columbia, WDFW plans to plant 35,000 steelhead smolts currently earmarked for the East Fork Lewis River in the Washougal River and 20,000 in Salmon Creek. The department is still looking for a place to relocate the 25,000 smolts currently scheduled for the North Fork Toutle/Green River watershed, Le Fleur said.
Final recommendations on the plan to create gene banks in the basin be forwarded to NOAA-Fisheries, which oversees salmon and steelhead recovery on the Columbia River.