There is an old saying in conservation that, “all of our victories are temporary and all our defeats permanent.” However, this month Washington’s wild steelhead gained a permanent victory with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) designating the Elwha and Nisqually rivers as Wild Steelhead Gene Banks (WSGBs). As our state’s newest wild steelhead sanctuaries, both rivers will be off-limits to releases of steelhead raised in state hatcheries, which can pose risks to native fish through interbreeding and competition for spawning areas.
Through years of hard work and extensive collaboration with the Native Fish Society, Wild Fish Conservancy, Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative, and the Conservation Angler, as well as citizen engagement in WDFW’s policy making, wild steelhead conservationists have been able to usher in important, incremental steps to help reduce the negative impacts of hatchery steelhead. This latest progress is a significant step forward to helping rebuild struggling steelhead stocks on these important Puget Sound rivers.
Five years ago, when a series of celebratory explosions blew up two once insurmountable dams, new hope was breathed into the Elwha River. For a century the Elwha’s genetically distinct steelhead runs had been devastated by dams that choked off 97 percent of their historic habitat. Now with the dams gone, the threat of non-native hatchery fish eliminated, and the river’s native steelhead genetics still distinct both above and below the former dam sites, the Elwha’s wild steelhead have a fighting chance to return to their historic abundance. This recent announcement is a monumental step forward for the rewilding of the Elwha. And it’s a fitting passage in one of our nation’s greatest conservation success stories in the making.
Similarly, the Nisqually River’s wild steelhead were once decimated to alarming levels. Unchecked, aggressive harvest and habitat degradation from unsustainable forestry practices took their tolls for decades. But like the Elwha, the Nisqually is finally showing signs of recovery. Forest and aquatic habitat is being restored by groups like the Nisqually River Council. The already burgeoning rebound of wild steelhead returns, permanent elimination of hatchery plants, an amazing estuary recovery effort, and the promise of sustained cold flows melting off Mount Rainier’s flanks provide strong hope for the future. Like the Elwha, we are excited to observe the continued recovery of wild steelhead in this magnificent basin. And we hope that recovery will someday reach levels to provide sustainable angling opportunity.
Under the WSGB designation, fishing will be allowed in both rivers, as it currently is in other Wild Steelhead Gene Bank systems like the Sol Duc, if wild steelhead runs in each river are strong enough to allow it.
However despite this notable progress, there is much work still to be done for Washington’s iconic State Fish. We are disappointed the WDFW did not designate the Skagit Watershed as a Wild Steelhead Gene Bank at this time. The Skagit and its tributary the Sauk are home to cold, clean water, abundant habitat, and the Puget Sound Basin’s healthiest remaining runs of wild steelhead, in some years totaling over 9,000 fish. It’s vital this entire watershed is protected from harmful hatchery plants through a WSGB designation. We appreciate that the Department is continuing to review this monumental opportunity for wild steelhead conservation. We are committed to participating in this process to ensure that your voices are heard and that the crown jewel of Steelhead Country becomes a wild steelhead sanctuary.
It is abundantly clear from WDFW’s public comment process that the public wants the Skagit Watershed designated as a WSGB – a whopping 91 percent of respondents (869 of 959 people) strongly supported this designation. Moreover, the Skagit also passes WDFW’s established criteria with flying colors. And if runs continue to recover, it may soon be a candidate for a sustainable wild steelhead fishery.
Simply put, the Skagit has everything WDFW deemed critical for being a successful gene bank. It has a zero percent extinction risk. It has minimal gene flow. And it has diversity – one of only two rivers under consideration with both winter and summer runs. The Skagit also has extensive collaboration between federal, state, local government, non-profit organizations, and tribal partnerships that are working together to implement one of the state’s most extensive steelhead monitoring and recovery frameworks. We believe the entire Skagit Watershed should be designated as a WSGB and will work tirelessly to make that happen. Wild Steelhead Coalition members and supporters, as well as supporters of wild steelhead across our state, will be vital for achieving the permanent protection in this legendary river.
THANK YOU to everyone who submitted comments, attended meetings, and helped spread the word. This decision is a credit to your efforts and your passion for wild steelhead conservation.