Police seek steelhead bandits who released 25,000 fish

by GARY CHITTIM / KING 5 News

NWCN.com

Posted on May 13, 2014 at 2:34 PM

Updated yesterday at 5:36 PM

FALL CITY, Wash. — Washington state’s five steelhead hatcheries are on high alert after someone broke into a facility overnight and released approximately 25,000 juvenile fish into the Snoqualmie River.

State Fish and Wildlife Hatchery managers are concerned it was an act of defiance against a new agreement that sharply curtails the state’s steelhead hatchery program. The agreement resulted from a lawsuit filed by a fish protection group, Wild Fish Conservancy, which accused the State of violating the Endangered Species Act. State Fish and Wildlife Managers agreed to stop planting winter steelhead hatchery fish in all but one river.

This set off a wave of criticism by some sport anglers who eagerly await the steelhead runs each year.

It also left the state with huge numbers of steelhead that could not be released into tributaries of Puget Sound. Whoever struck the Tokul Creek facility on the Snoqualmie appeared to know the hatchery was planning to truck its large inventory of steelhead to the east side of the state where they would be released into lakes that would not allow them to migrate to the Sound.

State Fish and Wildlife Enforcement officers and King County Sheriffs deputies are investigating the break in. Hatchery workers say whoever did it cut the lock off a tall chain link fence, entered the hatchery grounds and pulled the screens that prevented the steelhead from entering the creek and Snoqualmie River.

Private security officers have been hired to patrol the other hatcheries until police figure out if this is an isolated case or part of an organized resistance to the settlement.

Washington Tribes excluded from decision to hold 2014 winter steelhead hatchery release: State reacts to Conservancy lawsuit, halting the release of more than 900,000 steelhead

The new Elwha Tribal fish hatchery on the Elwha reservation is to be used to supplement populations of fish that naturally recolonize the river as habitat becomes available. Photo: Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times, 2011

The new Elwha Tribal fish hatchery on the Elwha reservation is to be used to supplement populations of fish that naturally recolonize the river as habitat becomes available. Photo: Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times, 2011

By Andrew Gobin, Tulalip News

“The hatcheries were built for one reason. That is to make up for lost natural and salmon production caused by habitat loss,” said Billy Frank Jr., Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, in reaction to Washington State’s decision to hold 900,000 steelhead slated to be released from state hatcheries this year. The decision follows a lawsuit filed by Washington’s Wild Fish Conservancy, an environmental group based in Duvall, which contends that hatchery runs are detrimental to wild steelhead and salmon populations, claiming hatchery reared steelhead suffer genetic inferiority and create habitat competition.

The conservancy filed a complaint, claiming the state is in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Wild Steelhead were added to the endangered species list in 2007 as threatened, and in the seven years since, according to the conservancy, the state had an obligation to prove that hatchery runs pose no threat to the wild steelhead.

According to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) press release on April 1, the state hatchery operations do not currently have approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is required following the addition of wild steelhead to the endangered species list. That alone opens up the WDFW to legal action.

Phil Anderson of the WDFW said, “We believe strongly that we are operating safe and responsible hatchery programs that meet exacting science-based standards, but without NMFS certification that our hatchery programs comply with the Endangered Species Act, we remain at risk of litigation. We are working hard to complete that process.”

The WDFW has decided that they will not be releasing the ‘early winter’ hatchery steelhead unless the legal issues are resolved. If they continue unresolved, the WDFW will continue to rear the steelhead and release them into lakes in the spring.

Washington tribes, who were neither consulted before the decision nor lawsuit, are very disappointed about the state’s decision, and that the conservancy group did not work to resolve their differences within the 60 day intent period.

“Both Indian and non-Indian fishermen depend on tribal and state hatcheries and the fish they provide. Hatchery steelhead and salmon are also essential to fulfilling promises of tribal treaties with the United States,” Frank said. Those treaty rights depend on fish being available for harvest.

The halt of the steelhead release means the probable end of the state’s steelhead sport fishery. Similarly, continued hindrances to other hatchery operations would have the same drastic effects, for all fisheries in the state, tribal and non-tribal.

Frank said, “Instead of addressing the real problem of steelhead habitat loss, the lawsuit could once again force Indian and non-Indian fishermen to unfairly pay the price for habitat destruction that hatcheries were supposed to make up for. That’s not right.”

Andrew Gobin is a reporter with the See-Yaht-Sub, a publication of the Tulalip Tribes Communications Department.
Email: agobin@tulaliptribes-nsn.gov
Phone: (360) 716.4188