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  • Steelhead is the Washington State Fish
  • Steelhead fishing is a major industry in the state
  • Washington is home to 7 distinct steelhead populations
Skagit River

Washington State falls right in the middle of the range of steelhead, Chinook and coho, and at the southern extent of the range of pink salmon and sockeye

The Hama Hama River

The Hama Hama River

From the glacial rivers of the Olympics and Cascades to the tributaries of the Upper Columbia and Snake, the rivers of Washington State were historically unrivaled in the abundance and diversity of salmon they supported. Today that abundance is diminished significantly and many stocks of salmon and steelhead throughout the state are listed under the endangered species act. Dam building on the Columbia has contributed to the decline of many populations, however habitat degradation from urbanization, clear cut logging and other destructive practices have also played a significant role in the decline of salmon and steelhead.

The Puget Sound region was once among the most productive salmon ecosystems in the world. Large rivers flowed from their mountain headwaters in the Cascade Range to the Puget Sound lowlands. Rivers such as the Skagit, Skykomish, Stillaguamish and Puyallup meandered through the coastal plain forming a rich network of riparian and riverine habitat with braided channels, forested islands, off-channel habitats and oxbow lakes. This habitat gave rise to an unimaginable abundance of salmon and steelhead and estimates of historic steelhead run sizes in the area based on commercial catch records have placed the historic abundance of steelhead in Puget Sound at more than 600,000 fish, compared to a 25-year average of 22,000. The Stillaguamish alone is thought to have been home to as many as 90,000 steelhead in some years.

Fishing boats in front of Olympic mountains

Fishing boats on Puget Sound

Today the region is home to almost 3.5 million people and is among the fastest growing urban areas on the West Coast. With more than a century of habitat destruction and the ongoing threat of urbanization the Puget Sound faces unique challenges in the effort to restore threatened Chinook and steelhead.

Puget Sound however is not the only part of the state where salmon and steelhead are struggling. Populations of steelhead are listed as threatened in the Lower Columbia, Middle Columbia, Upper Columbia and Snake. Chinook are listed in the Lower Columbia, Upper Columbia, and Snake. Coho and chum are listed in the Lower Columbia, and coho are being reintroduced in the Upper Columbia and Snake after being driven to extinction by dams and overharvest in the 1980s. While the Olympic Peninsula and Southwest Washington are home to some of the healthiest remaining runs of salmon and steelhead in the state, they too have suffered from decades of destructive logging, overharvest including commercial fisheries targeting steelhead and massive hatchery programs which continue to depress wild productivity.

While forest practice laws are now in place which will reduce the damage done to watersheds by destructive logging in the future, hatchery operations throughout the state remain a major concern for the health of wild populations. Washington State runs the largest state hatchery program in the country. As of 2010 the state spent $52 million dollars on hatcheries each year, and that’s not counting the many federal hatchery facilities around the state. In an era of increased concern for wild salmon and shrinking government budgets it is critical the Washington look critically at the degree to which hatcheries have contributed to the decline of wild populations. This means following the best scientific practices by ending outplanting of hatchery juveniles in rivers without collection facilities for returning adults and designating wild salmon genebanks: rivers without any hatchery supplementation, in each region. So far the state has been slow to enact both policies however it was recently announced that as of 2014 the Sol Duc River, home to what is perhaps the healthiest steelhead run in the state will be managed as a wild steelhead genebank. This is a major step forward for WDFW and there is hope that it is the beginning of a new chapter for salmon and steelhead in the state.