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Gimongous Win for Puget Sound Wild Steelhead

Wild Fish Conservancy and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have settled the lawsuit filed by the Conservancy March 31, 2014.

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In a huge win for Puget Sound's wild steelhead recovery efforts, Wild Fish Conservancy settled its lawsuit with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).  As part of the settlement, WDFW will

  • cease planting “Chambers Creek” hatchery-origin steelhead in all but of one Puget Sound rivers until NOAA scientifically evaluates and approves each specific hatchery program, and
  • begin a twelve-year moratorium of such hatchery plants in the Skagit River system, Puget Sound's largest tributary and most important wild steelhead river.

Filed March 31, 2014, the suit sought Endangered Species Act (ESA) compliance for WDFW's numerous "Chambers Creek" hatchery winter steelhead programs.  Since the first listing of Puget Sound salmon under the ESA in 1999, almost all of WDFW's hatchery programs in the region have continued to release large numbers of juvenile salmon and steelhead without the scientific evaluation and approval required by the ESA.

Contrary to popular belief, the Chambers Creek hatchery programs, like many hatchery programs, do not aid wild fish recovery.  Recent scientific evidence indicates that hatchery steelhead programs adversely affect wild steelhead by causing negative genetic, ecological, and demographic effects.  In 2010, scientists from the regional science center of the NOAA Fisheries Service concluded “Chambers Creek steelhead have no role in the recovery of native Puget Sound steelhead.”

The combination of the Puget Sound and Skagit moratoriums is the largest and most significant effort of its kind on the West Coast. The moratorium will:

  • help protect Puget Sound's wild steelhead populations from the negative impacts of the Chambers Creek hatchery programs, and
  • provide the opportunity to establish the Skagit River system as the largest wild steelhead research project of its kind, providing guidance for future recovery efforts.


The Skagit River moratorium is particularly important because of the history of steelhead returns compared to hatchery steelhead plants in the watershed.  In the Skagit, it is clear that planting increasing numbers of hatchery steelhead does NOT lead to increasing numbers of returning steelhead.  On the contrary:

Skagit Steelhead Table

The best way to investigate the issue of the impact of hatchery fish on wild Puget Sound steelhead is to conduct a long-term study of a large wild steelhead population from which in-basin hatchery releases and straying of hatchery adults from nearby programs has been eliminated. The Skagit provides the best opportunity to do this in all of Puget Sound.

The settlement also provides that WDFW and WFC work cooperatively to study and evaluate whether development and implementation of an integrated steelhead hatchery program using native steelhead is warranted and if so, the appropriate parameters of such a program in the Skagit watershed, excluding the Sauk River.

Such a hatchery program would use adults from the local wild population as broodstock so returning adults will spawn in the wild with the local wild population.  The hope is that the higher survival of juveniles in the hatchery will result in more adults returning, thus increasing the numbers of the local wild population and assisting its recovery.  Research indicates, however, that even a very short amount of time in the hatchery results in returning adults that are less fit in the wild than truly wild fish.  Even the hatchery-origin offspring of native wild steelhead parents produce fewer returning adult offspring than their true wild counterparts. Although the negative effects may not be as great as those seen from production hatchery fish (e.g., Chambers Creek steelhead), these fish still present a measurable threat to the local wild population.  

Knowing what we know about the Skagit and other integrated hatchery efforts, we are skeptical that such a program would in fact accelerate the recovery of the Skagit steelhead population.  We do look forward, however, to the opportunity to work with WDFW to determine whether such a program is appropriate, and if so, to develop a clear protocol for determining the requisite parameters and conditions of an integrated program, such as

  • the size of the program;
  • the duration of the program; and
  • the data that must be obtained and regularly evaluated.

The last point is particularly important in order to determine whether the program is achieving the desired conservation goals and avoiding harm to the Skagit’s wild steelhead population.  The monitoring and adaptive management protocol must include the quantitative thresholds that, if exceeded, would result in the termination of the program.  Throughout this process, you can be assured that WFC’s first priority is the well-being and recovery of the Skagit’s wild steelhead.

Before WFC took action, WDFW had planned to release 330,000 into the Snohomish River basin and 930,000 across the Puget Sound basin.  Now, pending the evaluation and approval of specific hatchery program plans by NOAA Fisheries, WDFW will release no more than 180,000 Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead into the Skykomish River in 2014 and 2015.  This year, WDFW intends on releasing the approximately 750,000 surplus fish into waters that are not connected to anadromous rivers.

The settlement is a huge victory, but it is another step in what has already been a lengthy struggle (WFC first took action to force WDFW to prepare hatchery program plans in 2003). As far as steelhead is concerned, WDFW’s track record is one where stewardship obligations are usually secondary to recreation.  If we are to have sustainable steelhead fisheries in the future, recovery of the WILD populations is the only viable option.  

Read the press release: Lawsuit Settlement Big Advance For Wild Steelhead Recovery

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