Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Puget Sound Steelhead Continue Freefall

For the second straight year Puget Sound steelhead returns hovered near record lows. Despite excellent returns on the Columbia River and modest improvements in run sizes on the coast, escapement estimates recently released by WDFW show a bleak picture in Puget Sound. Puget Sound steelhead were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2007 and since that time runs have continued their freefall. While declines are still poorly understood, indications are that poor marine survival is largely driving declines in steelhead abundance. As recently as the 1980s a number of Puget Sound rivers supported "healthy" populations of steelhead. During the 1980's the Skagit routinely saw returns in excess of 10,000 fish. While overharvest and habitat loss have certainly contributed to these declines, habitat conditions during the 1980s were no better than they are at present and in some cases freshwater has recovered dramatically after intensive logging in the 20th century. Last year the estimated escapement on the Skagit was around 4000 fish, well short of the escapement goal of 6700 fish. Last year, every major Puget Sound River fell short of its escapement. The Snohomish system is estimated to have received fewer than 2000 fish, more than 4500 fish short of its escapement goal. The Snohomish has not met its escapement goal since 1994. Equally troubling are dramatic down turns in returns to the Green River which had, until the middle of this decade been faring better than other Puget Sound Rivers. WDFW estimates that last year only 435 fish returned to the Green, its escapment goal is over 2000.

Despite the dire situation, WDFW has taken almost no action other than closing all rivers to fishing February 15th. The department has yet to establish Wild Fish Management Zones promised in the steelhead management plan and hatchery releases into the sound continue to be more or less business as usual, further crowding an already unproductive ecosystem with millions of hatchery reared smolts each spring. With such poor survival, many of WDFW's hatchery programs are utter failures and a state auditors report last year found that on average Puget Sound blackmouth cost nearly $800. Surely there is a better use of these funds? Why not set aside some of the more productive watersheds in the sound for the production of wild fish and seek to limit competition and other ecological interactions between hatchery fish and wild in these systems?

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