Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Puget Sound Rivers to Close Early
WDFW announced today that for the second consecutive year fishing will close early in the rivers of the Puget Sound Basin. In recent years these populations have been plagued by poor marine survival and runs have dipped to record low numbers. The Skagit had been the last river in the Puget Sound to remain open during the traditional March/April catch and release fishery however in 2009, the last time the river remained open throughout the season, WDFW estimated that fewer than 3000 fish returned to spawn.
Understanding the environmental and biological factors contributing to recent declines in marine survival is a glaring research need. With rivers closing January 31st to protect fragile wild steelhead populations, angling opportunities on the iconic rivers of the Puget Sound are all but gone, at least for the time being. Returns to hatchery programs around the area have also been dismal and biologists on the federal Hatchery Scientific Review Group have expressed concern that large numbers of hatchery salmon and steelhead released into the sound may exceed the carrying capacity of the system. Under normal conditions steelhead typically have smolt to adult survival ranging from 10 to 30%. Over the last decade survival of hatchery smolts in many puget sound rivers has fallen below 1%, worse than pink salmon which enter the marine environment almost immediately after emerging from the gravel. While marine survival is undoubtedly higher for wild fish it has almost certainly hovered in the single digits in recent years.
Despite the bleak outlook for wild steelhead in Puget Sound habitat conditions in many river systems have actually improved since the 1980s when as many as 13,000 wild steelhead returned annually to the Skagit system. While WDFW has a limited number of tools at its disposal to increase marine survival the first steps should be reducing the number of hatchery salmon and steelhead competing for limited resources in the sound and to invest in research to better understand population trends, freshwater productivity and factors associated with high mortality in the marine environment. Recent budget cuts at the department may necessitate some of these cut backs in the hatchery system and the ineffectiveness of Puget Sound hatchery programs has raised eyebrows in Olympia where a state auditors report last year revealed that every Puget Sound blackmouth caught in the fishery costs taxpayers nearly 800 dollars. Clearly something has to give. Change has been incremental, WDFW has reduced the number of steelhead smolts in some systems and has ended outplanting in rivers around Puget Sound without collection facilities and more is coming.
All this is a painful reminder that without healthy wild runs there is no possibility of even catch and release angling opportunity. WDFW has been extremely aggressive in closing rivers which are failing to meet escapement goals. Their concern over catch and release on these fragile returns may be valid however the fact remains, Puget Sound steelhead are not in peril because of catch and release angling. In fact catch and release is likely at the bottom of the list of factors that may be contributing to declining steelhead returns and it is unfortunate that WDFW does not place equal emphasis on curtailing other impacts such as the ecological and evolutionary threat posed by hatchery programs or the long term effects of habitat degradation. Each year 58 million dollars are spent on hatchery programs around the state, why not divert some of that money to expanded monitoring and research on Puget Sound systems? Because, until wild fish recover all of the iconic rivers of the Puget Sound will remain closed.
Link to the WDFW news release: