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Steelhead Management Plan Questions & Answers

How will the new statewide plan affect steelhead management in Washington state?

The statewide steelhead plan provides a framework of policies and strategies that will guide development of regional plans for the seven distinct population segments around the state. Those policies and strategies address all aspects of steelhead management, including fisheries, hatcheries, habitat, regulatory compliance, research and monitoring.

In all of these areas, the statewide plan gives top priority to “protection of wild steelhead stocks to maintain and restore stocks to healthy levels.” So, while the plan recognizes the value of providing diverse fishing opportunities, it clearly states that fisheries must be consistent with conservation goals for wild stocks. Moreover, it requires the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to identify and monitor changes necessary in fisheries, hatcheries and habitat management to achieve those conservation goals.

Many of those specific changes will be identified in regional management plans, due for completion in 2010-11. However, WDFW will also apply the conservation and fish management principles outlined in the statewide plan to steelhead-management decisions in the intervening years.

Will the steelhead management plan affect fishing opportunities?

There will likely be some changes in fisheries as WDFW reviews and defines conservation goals for specific steelhead stocks. Changes in hatchery production could also affect the number and timing of steelhead available for harvest. Again, most of those changes will be identified during the development of seven regional management plans.

It is important to recognize, however, that steelhead fisheries are not considered to be a significant factor in the decline of wild steelhead populations in recent years. In listing Puget Sound stocks for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2007, NOAA Fisheries stated “we do not believe that overutilization is a factor limiting the viability of the Puget Sound steelhead DPS (distinct population segment) into the foreseeable future.” The agency has also issued similar findings for steelhead fisheries in other state waters.

The main reason for these findings is that the introduction of selective fisheries in the mid-1990s – requiring the release of wild, unmarked steelhead – has focused most state steelhead fisheries on hatchery-origin fish. Catch statistics show, for example, that hatchery fish made up 96 percent of all steelhead taken by anglers in 2003-04.

Selective fishing is one of many ongoing management strategies included in the statewide plan along with new measures designed to provide greater support and protection for naturally spawning steelhead populations in Washington state.

What prompted the development of statewide steelhead plan?

Since 1992, five distinct wild steelhead populations returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers – and, most recently, the Puget Sound area – have been listed for protection under the federal ESA. Loss of functional habitat presents a growing challenge to steelhead populations throughout the state, and questions remain about how hatchery programs should be designed to benefit wild stocks. Concerns about climate change and its implications for future steelhead runs have also intensified the need for clear management guidelines.

For all these reasons, WDFW managers believed that a comprehensive review of steelhead management strategies was in order. Complicating the issue, the status of Washington’s wild steelhead populations varies greatly from one region to the next. More than 90 percent of the wild steelhead runs on the Olympic Peninsula and 60 percent in southwest Washington were rated “healthy” in a scientific assessment of steelhead stocks completed by WDFW in 2008. But that is true of only 20 percent of the runs in other areas of the state, pointing to the need for regional planning within the general guidelines outlined in the statewide plan.

As noted in that assessment, the sheer number of fish that return from year to year provides just one indication of the health of steelhead stocks. Scientists now recognize that the fecundity, genetic diversity, the distribution of fish throughout a given watershed and the life history of those fish are also important measures of a stock’s health. The statewide plan requires that fishery managers pay greater attention to all of these aspects of steelhead health in developing management actions for individual stocks.

What poses the greatest risk to wild steelhead populations?

Loss of functional habitat – particularly freshwater habitat – is generally believed to present the greatest risk to the state’s wild steelhead populations. In its ESA listing for Puget Sound steelhead, NOAA-Fisheries concluded “habitat is the principal factor limiting the viability of the Puget Sound steelhead DPS (distinct population segment) into the foreseeable future.”

In Puget Sound and other waters around the state, scientists note that water diversions for agriculture, flood control, residential use and hydropower have all reduced the amount of freshwater habitat used by naturally spawning steelhead. Forestry, mining and industrial development have also reduced or degraded habitat.

Steelhead are more vulnerable to these changes, because they spend more time in freshwater than other anadromous species. Unlike salmon, they often spend more than one year in freshwater and spawn in multiple years, depositing their eggs farther up rivers and streams. In the ocean, they also tend to school higher in the water column, making them more vulnerable to climate change or surface temperature changes.

WDFW has limited authority over land-use decisions, but does administer the Hydraulic Project Approval program, which regulates activities on and near state waters that could affect fish life. The department also coordinates habitat-restoration projects conducted by local governments, Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups and other organizations. The statewide steelhead management plan directs WDFW to emphasize steelhead conservation in all of these programs.

How will the statewide steelhead plan affect hatchery production?

The statewide plan expands on previous efforts to use state hatcheries to rebuild wild fish stocks along with their traditional role of producing fish for harvest. Over the past 25 years, the number of state hatcheries involved in some aspect of wild salmon or steelhead recovery has increased from two to 21. Recommendations issued by an independent group of scientists commissioned by Congress in 2000 have resulted in hundreds of changes in hatchery programs designed to benefit wild fish.

The statewide steelhead plan builds on these efforts by setting clear standards for all state steelhead hatcheries, consistent with the recommendations provided by the independent scientists. First, hatchery managers must identify whether a given facility will be managed on an “integrated” or “segregated” model. For integrated facilities, designed to minimize genetic differences between hatchery fish and local wild stocks, wild fish must dominate the genetic representation of the single population. For segregated facilities, where the goal is to keep hatchery fish separated from wild stocks, the gene flow from hatchery fish to wild stocks cannot exceed 2 percent.

As in fishery management, the effect of these provisions in specific areas will largely be determined by the regional management plans. It is likely, however, that anglers will see some changes in steelhead production as regional managers work to align hatchery programs with the new standards established in the statewide steelhead plan.

How will steelhead recovery efforts relate to those already under way for wild salmon populations?

Wild steelhead populations will certainly benefit from salmon-recovery efforts initiated over the past decade, particularly those focusing on habitat restoration. The regional salmon-recovery plans do provide suggestions for actions related to hatcheries and harvest management, but focus primarily on habitat improvements.

The steelhead management plan, on the other hand, provides clear direction for new initiatives in hatchery and harvest management to be implemented through seven regional management plans throughout the state. Those regional plans, scheduled for completion over the next two to three years, will build on concepts articulated in the salmon-recovery plans by laying out specific actions to be implemented on the ground.

Will there be opportunities for public involvement in the development of the regional plans?

Yes. Each regional plan will go through a supplemental State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review, which includes a series of public hearings. WDFW will also hold informational meetings for members of the public interested in the development of the regional plans.

In developing the statewide plan, WDFW held seven public meetings associated with the SEPA review around the state. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission also held three public meetings on the statewide plan before approving it March 8, 2008. During the course of those hearings, WDFW received over a hundred public comments on its proposal – many of which were reflected in the final plan.