Wild steelhead are a wonder of nature. Their daunting journey from the river of their birth to the ocean and back is awe-inspiring. Their sheer strength and ability to traverse seemingly impassable waters is nothing short of remarkable. And they have exceptional power, size, and beauty. These attributes as well as their indelible mystique combine to make wild steelhead the pinnacle of freshwater fishing.
Legend has it that there were once so many steelhead and salmon in Washington’s rivers that you could walk across the water on the backs of fish. But gross mismanagement of these rivers for the last century has decimated these steelhead and salmon populations, relegating the stirring images of rivers full of fish to a distant memory. Now wild steelhead populations represent a dismal 3% of their historic numbers in Puget Sound, yet 66% of their historical habitat remains. As a result, these fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – the federal agency charged with protecting these imperiled fish – government-operated steelhead hatcheries are one of the four known causes for the precipitous decline of wild steelhead populations. Despite this understanding, NOAA is currently undermining critical federal regulations in a politically motivated effort to expedite approval of Puget Sound hatchery programs.
This undercutting of federal procedures represents a significant departure for NOAA, which spent the last 11 years rigorously developing a comprehensive environmental review of hatchery program’s impact in Puget Sound. NOAA was expected to release the review’s findings this spring but at the last minute suddenly abandoned this 11-year comprehensive review. In its place, NOAA is now conducting a cursory environmental assessment for three hatcheries in three different watersheds.
NOAA is trying to justify this approach as simply a strategy adjustment. However, this dramatic reversal is much more than that. In reality, it is a precedent setting approach that has the potential to undercut critical protections for not just steelhead but all endangered species, including orca whales, wolves, and salmon. Left unchecked, this decision could have far-reaching implications as it could make federal approval easier for destructive projects across the United States.
Time is running out, but we still have the potential to stop NOAA from setting this dangerous precedent that will imperil threatened steelhead populations and all ESA-listed species. Please submit a comment and tell NOAA you will not stand for them undermining federal environmental protections for threatened steelhead.