Monday, August 31, 2009
Worst Returns on Record for Puget Sound Winter Steelhead?
It appears that Winter Steelhead in the Puget Sound area are rapidly sliding towards oblivion. While it remains unofficial, a reliable source reported recently that preliminary spawner estimates on the Skagit system this past spring were in the ball park of 2000 fish, startlingly few fish on a system that as recently as the 1950s likely supported well over 30,000 winter steelhead most years. The escapement goal is 6,000 fish and this year WDFW had forecasted a banner run. Anyone who spent much time fishing the Skagit this winter could tell you that there were very few fish. While it is no surprise that the Skagit failed to reach its preseason forecast the magnitude of the failure is startling and should have managers raising serious questions about how to save Puget Sound wild steelhead before its too late.
One things that managers and biologists know for sure is that ocean survival has declined dramatically in the past 15 years. Historic smolt to adult survival in steelhead is thought to have been between 10 and 25%. Recent acoustic tagging research on the Green and Puyallup systems has revealed that in most years fewer than 10% of the smolts even survive their migration to the Strait of Juan De Fuca. While the ocean environment is complex and understudied the connection between the massive hatchery supplementation in Puget Sound seems obvious. Much has been made of genetic interactions, reduced fitness and the desirability of segregating hatchery stocks from spawning with wild, however the ecological impacts of industrial scale hatchery supplementation are underappreciated. Through competition, predation, and disease hatchery salmon of all species are likely providing downward pressure on wild salmonids in the Sound. Additionally the large communities of predators supported by hatchery supplementation may be taking a heavy toll on wild fish. Because it is a confined, glacial, fjord, the Puget Sound is particularly sensitive to pollution including intensive hatchery supplmentation.
If we are serious about recovering wild stocks we need to prioritize watersheds for protection as wild refugia. While urbanization and habitat degradation are common around the Puget Sound Area many streams are in relatively good shape. The Skagit and Sauk are perfect examples of quality freshwater habtiat being underutilized. Until managers begin to understand and address the true scale at which hatchery programs are impacting wild populations and come up with a more biologically hatchery releases wild fish are unlikely to make a recovery of any consequence. From any perspective most hatchery programs in the Sound are a failure. Low ocean survival in hatchery stocks means that millions of smolts are planted annually for pitifully small sport catches. Hopefully 2000 fish returning to one of our states most storied steelhead rivers serves as a wakeup call, the status quo will only lead to continued declines. Wild steelhead can recover in Puget Sound if we acknowledge the factors limiting their productivity and aggressively address the problems.
Keep checking back as official escapement estimates come out we will post them.