Stalking Puget Sound Steelhead With Science

The crew of the research vessel Chasina gets ready to drop an acoustic telemetry receiver 300 feet down into Puget Sound. The device will record tagged steelhead as they swim out of their spawning rivers. | credit: Ashley Ahearn
The crew of the research vessel Chasina gets ready to drop an acoustic telemetry receiver 300 feet down into Puget Sound. The device will record tagged steelhead as they swim out of their spawning rivers. | credit: Ashley Ahearn

By Ashley Ahearn, Earthfix; OPB

TACOMA, Wash. — You might call Barry Berejikian a steelhead stalker.

The government scientist’s pursuit of these anodramous trout has brought him to the deck of the Chasina, a research vessel that’s motoring through choppy gray waters of southern Puget Sound near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

He’s here to lay the groundwork for an experiment that could explain why so few steelhead are completing their journey through Puget Sound and on to the Pacific Ocean.

Since 2007, Puget Sound steelhead have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Millions of dollars have been spent improving their habitat but the fish are not recovering.

And scientists can’t pinpoint why.

Berejikian aboard the research vessel Chasina. Credit: Ashley Ahearn


Berejikian is surrounded by keg-sized yellow buoys as he stands on the ship’s deck. These buoys are equipped with acoustic telemetry receivers and roped up to 500-pound concrete weights. The crew uses a crane to lift the devices over the side of the boat and drop eight of them 300 feet beneath the waves in a staggered line across Puget Sound.

Once they’re in place, the receiver buoys will float 20-30 feet above the bottom “listening” for fish. Later this spring, Berejikian plans to tag 300 juvenile steelhead in the Nisqually and Green rivers.

The floating receivers will record the tags when the fish pass by, enabling scientists to track individual fish as they make their way north through Puget Sound en route to the Pacific.

These arrays will be set up at four other points in Puget Sound, to chart how far the fish make it once they leave their spawning rivers.

“We want to detect every fish that comes through,” said Berejikian, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s kind of an aggressive approach but if you’re going to go to the trouble of doing the study you might as well go for it, so we’re going for it.”

The rivers in this part of the Puget Sound region are producing tens of thousands of juvenile steelhead every year. But scientists believe that only 20 percent of those fish complete their migratory route to the ocean. That has scientists curious about the locations of steelhead death “hot spots” as Berejikian calls them.

“We need to figure out why they’re dying and where they’re dying in order for us to work on management approaches to improving the situation,” Berejikian said.

If you’re a steelhead on your way out of Puget Sound this might be what comes to mind when Berejikian says “death hot spot”:

Harbor seal populations have boomed since the 1970s, prompting scientists to explore whether seal predation is contributing to steelhead mortality. Credit: Ashley Ahearn.


“They eat all salmon species, which would include chinook, coho, steelhead, chum and pink salmon,” said Steve Jeffries, who has studied harbor seals with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife since the 1970s. Jeffries added that there could be other animals preying on the steelhead, like sea lions, cormorants or harbor porpoise, whose populations are also on the rise in Puget Sound.

And of course there are other factors at play: Human population has increased in Puget Sound since the 1970s, as has development along rivers and coastlines.

But seals are still on the list of suspects and one thing’s for certain: there are more seals than there used to be.

Since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, harbor seal populations in Puget Sound have risen from roughly 2,000 in the early 1970s, to 13,000 today.

In conjunction with Berejikian’s steelhead tagging, Jeffries plans to tag 12 harbor seals this year. The tags on the seals will track their movements. They’ll also act as receivers, like the floating buoys on the bottom of Puget Sound, recording if there are any tagged steelhead that come within range.

“If we find out that the seals are feeding over here and the steelhead smolts are swimming through the same area then you’ve got this special overlap and it’s more likely that there is a predation going on,” Jeffries explained.

And if the seals are eating the out-migrating juvenile steelhead?

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Jeffries said. “Harbor seals, all marine mammals, are protected so any action that would come out of this would have to be vetted in a resource management arena.”

Jeffries said right now it’s too early to say if seals are a major contributor to steelhead mortality in Puget Sound. “It’s a long time in the future ‘til we would actually do anything proactive to reduce predation.”

Pot vs Fish: Can We Grow Salmon-Friendly Weed?

A national park ranger helps other law enforcement agencies eradicate a marijuana growing operation discovered in the park. | credit: David Snyder for the NPS
A national park ranger helps other law enforcement agencies eradicate a marijuana growing operation discovered in the park. | credit: David Snyder for the NPS

By Liam Moriarty, Jefferson Public Radio

As marijuana has become more mainstream, the business of cultivating the plant has boomed. That’s true nowhere more than in coastal northern California. There, the so-called Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties is believed to be the largest cannabis-growing region in the US.

But as the hills have sprouted thousands of new grow operations, haphazard cultivation is threatening the recovery of endangered West Coast salmon and steelhead populations.

The Eel River runs through the heart of the Emerald Triangle, draining California’s third-largest watershed. And it’s a key battleground in the struggle to save once-abundant Northwest coastal salmon runs.

Over the decades, poorly-regulated fishing, grazing and logging have all taken their toll on the fish that spawn in the river. Drought and ocean conditions likely related to climate change are making life hard, as well.

But Scott Greacen, who heads the conservation group Friends of the Eel River, says there’s a newer and growing threat to the salmon.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the marijuana industry at this point is the biggest single business in terms of its impact on the river,” he says.

After California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, the Emerald Triangle’s culture of small-scale, homestead pot cultivation that dates back to the 1960s found itself increasingly overwhelmed. Many local growers, plus thousands of newcomers, geared up to take advantage of the profits to be made in the so-called Green Rush.

That’s led to an explosion in the number and size of pot farms dotting the hills. And that’s meant more water being pulled from the streams, and more sediment, pesticides and fertilizers draining back in.

Greacen says what he’s seen reminds him of an earlier era, when poorly-regulated logging caused extensive sediment damage to salmon-bearing streams.

“The dirt in the creek doesn’t care if it came off a logging truck or a grower truck. It’s dirt in the creek and that’s bad for fish,” he says.

Scott Bauer works on salmon recovery for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says research has shown huge amounts of water are being diverted from streams and rivers across the region.

“It’s possible that in some watersheds, marijuana cultivation is consuming all the water available for fish,” he says.

But Kristin Nevedal, who heads the Emerald Growers Association, says as the rural region has become more suburbanized, the blame can’t be laid just on pot farmers.

“This is also water that’s going to livestock, it’s going to lawns, it’s going to veggie gardens, it’s going to showers,” she says.

Still, Nevedal concedes commercial marijuana cultivation is a big part of the problem. A contributing factor, she says, is that growing medical pot is allowed under state law, but there are no rules overseeing how it’s grown. Plus, growing is still a felony under federal law.

“So what we have with cannabis is this agricultural crop that’s produced for human consumption that’s likely the number one cash crop in the state that has zero regulations attached to it,” Nevedal says.

Fish and Wildlife’s Bauer agrees many of the environmental problems stem from that legal gray zone.

“The timber industry is heavily regulated. Farmers are regulated,” he says. “All these different industries that could have impacts are regulated. And this is the only one that isn’t.”

In an effort to fill that gap, Bauer says his office will issue permits to people who want to divert water for agricultural purposes, with no questions asked about their crop.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re growing avocados or oranges or grapes for that matter,” he says. “We don’t really care what it is. What I’m concerned about are impacts to salmon and steel head, coho in particular.”

So far, Bauer says this “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has coaxed only a handful of cannabis farmers to get permits to meet higher environmental standards.

Environmental consultant Hezekiah Allen says that shouldn’t be surprising.

“There’s just this tremendously complicated legal environment which makes it really hard for farmers who would like to come into compliance, who would like to use best practices on their farms to make progress,” he says.

The third-generation Humboldt County resident says the decades-long history of heavy-handed law enforcement efforts to eradicate pot from the Emerald Triangle has left a legacy of suspicion.

“The culture of prohibition has really damaged the farmers’ trust in the government and government agencies so there’s a lot of reconciliation work that needs to take place to rebuild trust in the minds of the people we’re that asking to comply,” he says.

Nonetheless, Allen says he’s confident most farmers want to do right by the land and the salmon. As part of a project with several community groups, including the Emerald Growers Association, he’s helped develop a manual of best practices for growers. It offers suggestions for using less water, for minimizing erosion and for keeping runoff out of streams.

A first run of 2,000 of the guides was distributed free around the region, and an expanded version is in the works. Allen is optimistic this kind of voluntary community effort will help.

“There’s probably no such thing as a perfect, zero impact farm,” he says. “But if we give people the information and the knowledge they need, they will make improvements.”

Allen says what’s really needed is a proper set of rules. But while the need to regulate this burgeoning industry is widely acknowledged, there’s little visible sign of movement in that direction in Sacramento.

For now, the future of northern California salmon runs seems to depend at least in part on the good intentions of cannabis growers in the Emerald Triangle.

This was first reported for Jefferson Public Radio.

Good winter blackmouth fishery in Area 9

By Wayne Kruse, The Herald

One of the better winter blackmouth seasons in the past several years is underway on Possession Bar and in the rest of Marine Area 9, according to Gary Krein, All Star Charters owner/skipper in Everett.

“The triangle — Possession, Double Bluff and Point No Point — had a good opener and have held up well since,” he said. “It’s been a much better fishery than we saw here a year ago,”

Saturday creel checks by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel at the Port of Everett ramp tallied 45 anglers in 24 boats with 22 chinook. By comparison, 45 anglers had seven chinook on the same day at the Washington Park ramp in Anacortes, and 27 anglers had 11 fish at the Ediz Hook Public Ramp in Port Angeles.

Possession is probably the most consistent producer right now, Krein said, particularly on a strong tide. On weaker tides, Point No Point and Double Bluff fish better. Pilot Point and Midchannel Bank are also good bets.

The Area 9 fisher stays open through April 15. Areas 8-1 and 8-2 remain open through April 30 with a daily limit of two hatchery chinook. Marine Area 10 (central Sound) closes this week.

Krein likes 3-inch or 31/2-inch Kingfisher Lite spoons in white or greens, such as Irish cream, Irish flag, or red racer, behind a Gibbs Moonglow flasher and 38 to 40 inches of 25-pound monofilament leader. He puts his gear near bottom in 90 to 150 feet of water, and he says good electronics will pick up individual fish, not necessarily around bait this time of year.

Blackmouth are running from just-legal 5-pounders up to about 10 pounds, with good numbers in the 8-pound range.

“Surprisingly, shakers haven’t been the problem we had anticipated,” Krein said.

But seals have. Lots of seals, taking taking lots of hooked salmon.

“They’ve really been pests,” Krein said, “to the point that we’ve had to move to a different area at times, in order to boat a fish or two.”

Areas 8-1 and 8-2 — Possession Sound and Saratoga Passage — haven’t shared in the early action to any degree, Krein said. A fish or two from south Hat Island, but nothing much from Onomac, Ole’s Hole or any of the other north-end prospects.


The winter hatchery steelhead season was pretty much a non-event, but recent catches (and releases) of wild-stock fish in the Forks-area streams have been pretty good at times. On the Bogachiel last week, 63 fishermen had released 13 wild steelhead, kept eight and released four hatchery fish. This included 12 bank anglers and 47 boat fishermen. On the Calawah, seven bank anglers kept two hatchery fish. On the Sol Duc, 46 fishermen, mostly boaters, kept one and released 33 wild fish, and kept one hatchery fish. The wild fish kept was illegal.

On the lower Hoh over the weekend, 122 anglers released 14 wild-stock steelhead, and kept 17 and released 11 hatchery fish.

Enough hatchery broodstock steelhead now have been taken in a couple of local rivers to enable biologists to reopen the pair, in whole or partially. The Fortson Hole section of the North Fork Stillaguamish opened last Friday and will remain open through Friday. The Cascade River, tributary to the Skagit at Marblemount, will reopen Saturday and remain open through Feb. 15.

And hey, steelheaders. When was the last time you saw a steelhead fishery disrupted by tumbleweeds? Yeah, tumbleweeds; Russian thistles. State biologist Paul Hoffarth reported that the weekend saw large numbers of the dead, dry, round shrubs coming down the river after strong winds last week and making things difficult for fishermen at the Ringold hatchery upriver from the Tri-Cities. Fishing has been slow, tumbleweeds or not, Hoffarth said.


Discussions are still ongoing between fish managers of Washington, Oregon and the feds about opening at least a limited sport smelt (eulachon) dipping season on the Cowlitz River this winter as a means of gathering catch-per-unit data on the fish, which were listed as a threatened species in May, 2010. Following the ESA listing, both Oregon and Washington enacted permanent rules prohibiting directed harvest of eulachon on the Columbia and its tributaries. Commercial fishing closed permanently on Dec. 1, 2010, and recreational fishing on Jan. 1, 2011.

Then, what was estimated as one of the strongest eulachon runs in 10 years surprised everyone when it showed up in 2013. This winter’s run may not mirror last year’s, but then again, it might. As of last week, smelt have been confirmed in the Cowlitz and also in the Grays.

Free classes

Cabela’s Tulalip Store offers three interesting upcoming free classes: Long Range Shooting; Beginning Decoy Carving; and Successful Chironomid Techniques for Stillwater Fly Fishing.

The shooting class will include equipment, types of rifles and scopes, calibers and ammunition, reading the wind, using a spotter and ballistics computer, and more. It’s scheduled for Feb. 1, 11 a.m. to noon. Please RSVP by calling 360-474-4880.

The intro to decoy carving runs on Feb. 7, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., offering hands-on training in carving and painting a mallard drake working decoy. Participants must bring their own carving tools to class. Paint and wood are provided by the instructor for a minimal fee. Please contact instructor Kurt Benson directly with any questions at 425-231-6497. Space is limited to first 20, so RSVP by calling 360-474-4880.

Learn how to successfully fish chironomids, an insect seldom used but which comprises 40 percent of a trout’s diet in still waters year-around. Jerry Buron’s Feb. 8 presentation from 2-3:30 p.m. will introduce chironomids as a food source, how to fish them, when to use them and finally, how to tie chironomid patterns. It will explore the fly fishing equipment used, and how to set up your gear to catch fish. RSVP by calling 360-474-4880.

Razor clams

State razor clam manager Dan Ayres in Montesano said the ongoing razor clam dig should produce improved results over the mid-January dig, because of better tides and flatter surf.

The remaining tides and open beaches are: Jan. 30, minus 1.4 feet at 6:11 p.m., at Twin Harbors, Long Beach and Mocrocks; Jan. 31, minus 1.4 feet at 6:55 p.m., at Twin Harbors, Long Beach and Mocrocks; Feb. 1, minus 1.0 feet at 7:38 p.m., at all beaches except Kalaloch; and Feb. 2, minus 0.5 feet at 8:20 p.m., at Twin Harbors, Long Beach and Mocrocks.

San Juans blackmouth

Rosario Strait remains the hot spot in the islands, according to Kevin John at Holiday Sports in Burlington. Blakely Island/Thatcher Pass is producing and Strawberry Bay also has held a lot of fish to 12 pounds or so. When tides are right, Eastern and Salmon banks have been good places to catch blackmouth in the eight- to 10-pound range. A few more fish, John said, are coming from Fidalgo Head and Lopez Flats, while Reef Point remains slow.

Bait behind a flasher is still the go-to setup, John said, or small lures such as the 3-inch Kingfisher, needlefish squid, or Brad’s mini cut-plugs.


Eastside steelhead fishery off to fast start

By Wayne Kruse, The Herald

The upper Columbia and its major tributaries opened for steelhead last week and anglers found “lights out fishing in the Methow for the first few days,” according to Don Talbot at Hooked On Toys in Wenatchee (509-663-0740).

Instead of a simple float-and-jig rig, Talbot said, more and more steelheaders in his bailiwick are going to a “float-and-whatever,” adding a second lure to the setup hanging under the float.

“They’re tying a couple of feet of leader directly to the jig hook (the bend, not the eye), and then either a small Corky or a same-size bead on a number-4 hook to finish off the second lure,” Talbot said. “Use a Corky if you want the second lure to float, or the 6- to 8-mil bead if you want it to sink.”

Pinks are popular colors for the rig, as are red/black combinations.

“The setup is a little unwieldy to cast,” Talbot said, “but on the other hand, you always hope you’re going to hook a double.”


The bottom 12 miles of the Methow have been the most productive so far, he said. The lower Wenatchee is also a possibility, although there are fewer fish, apparently, in the Wenatchee run.


“Put in your time on the river, cover a lot of water, change colors,” Talbot said. “Persistence pays off.”

State Fish and Wildlife Department regional fish manager Jeff Korth in Ephrata said about 14,000 adult steelhead are expected to return to the upper Columbia system this year, enough to allow a fishery, but with a caution. Korth said fishing will be more tightly regulated this year than last because protected wild-stock fish are expected to make up a higher percentage of the run.

These fisheries traditionally remain open through the winter, but Korth said, “We may have to close early due to the higher number of encounters with wild steelhead expected this year.”

Anglers are required to keep the first two hatchery, fin-clipped, steelhead they catch, and that with the exception of the Columbia proper, where bait may be used, selective-gear rules apply.

San Juan salmon

Fishermen in the San Juan Islands are transitioning from coho to winter blackmouth, with pretty fair fishing available for both right now. Kevin John at Holiday Sports in Burlington (360-757-4361) said big, wild, “hooknose” coho are the target along the west side of San Juan Island, while blackmouth anglers are finding fish “inside” at Lopez Flats and around Cypress Island. Small baits and lures — yellow-label herring, Coho Killer spoons in shades of green — are popular choices, John said.

River coho

Work some different water for coho; try the main stem Stillaguamish, which has been putting out better than usual fishing the past couple weeks. Kevin John said the I-5 and Silvana areas are both good bets, although coho are where you find them. Try Dick Nite spoons in green, chartreuse or 50-50, he said.

The best bet for boat fishermen right now might be the Skagit River in the Sedro-Woolley area, backtrolling Brad’s Wigglers or drifting Vibrax spinners.

Snow geese

Waterfowl hunting has been slow around the state, with bluebird weather the general rule, but when winter storm fronts start marching through the area, there should be snow geese available locally. The prediction by state biologists is that it was at least a fair hatch and that it should be a decent, if not great, hunting season.

Because of changes in farming practices on the Skagit delta, and other factors, over-wintering snows have separated themselves into three fairly distinct groups: the Stanwood flock, the Fir Island flock and the Bow flock. Goose populations at all three locations are building each day.

Steelhead clinic

Mark your calendar for the annual Steelhead and River Fishing Workshop sponsored by the Everett Steelhead and Salmon Club and Everett Parks & Recreation. It’s free and open to all interested anglers. The popular seminar is scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 at Floral Hall in Forest Park in Everett.

The event covers methods and techniques for river fishing, tackle selection, hook tying, rigging and casting, reading water and more. There should be something here for both beginning and experienced anglers.

For more information, call Everett Parks at 425-257-8300, extension 2.

Cabela’s halloween

Cabela’s Tulalip will host a “spooktacular” for kids and adults from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, with trick or treating in each department of the store. Then take a stroll through the haunted aquarium, try a shot in the 3D Pumpkin Archery Range, decorate yourself with ghostly camo face paint, sample some terrifyingly delicious Dutch oven treats and hunt for the elusive, hairy Sasquatch. Try your hand (1-15 years of age) at the Sasquatch calling contest at 1 p.m. for a chance to win prizes.

For more information, call 360-474-4880.

Fix White River Dam, Fish Passage

By Billy Frank, Jr., Chairman, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

OLYMPIA – A crumbling 103-year-old fish-blocking diversion dam and inadequate fish passage system on the White River near Buckley need to be replaced because they are leading to injury and death for hundreds of threatened salmon, steelhead and bull trout, slowing salmon recovery efforts in the river system.

It’s common for some adult salmon to display a few cuts, scrapes and scars by the time they complete their ocean migration and return to spawn. That can take two to six years depending on the species.

But more and more fish are now being found at the foot of the diversion dam with gaping wounds and other injuries caused by exposed wooden boards, steel reinforcement bars and other parts of the deteriorating structure. Many of those fish later die from their injuries.

At the same time, an explosive revival of pink salmon has overwhelmed the inadequate trap-and-haul fish passage system operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At two years, pink salmon have the shortest life cycle of all salmon and are abundant in the Puget Sound region. Pink salmon returns to the White River have shot up in the past decade from tens of thousands to close to a million.

That’s led to massive crowding of returning adult spring chinook, steelhead and migrating bull trout at the foot of the diversion dam where salmon continually try to leap over the structure – injuring themselves in the process – in their effort to move upstream and spawn. All three species are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The diversion dam, constructed in 1910, sends water from the river to Lake Tapps. The dam prevents adult salmon from reaching the Mud Mountain Dam farther upstream, which is also impassable to salmon. Instead, fish are collected in a 73-year-old trap just below the diversion dam, then trucked upriver and released above Mud Mountain Dam.

There’s been a lot of talk but no action to fix the fish passage problem in the river.

Back in 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to upgrade the fish trap. So far, the Corps has ignored the order, claiming that it doesn’t have the money. NMFS, meanwhile, has turned a blind eye to the Corps’ documented illegal killing of ESA-listed salmon.

In 1986, only a handful of spring chinook returned to the White River, but today those returns number in the thousands because of the cooperative efforts of the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes, state government and others.

The Corps and NMFS need to step up to the plate and do their jobs. When they don’t, what they are really saying is that salmon, treaty rights, and years of effort and investment by so many of us here in Puget Sound don’t really matter.

2 accused of illegally selling caviar, steelhead, salmon

State agents believe the men have connections to an international poaching ring.

Diana Hefley, The Herald

EVERETT — An undercover operation in Snohomish County by state fish and wildlife agents has netted two men with suspected ties to an international fish-poaching ring.

The men are accused of illegally selling caviar, steelhead and salmon. One of the men admitted to illegally “snagging” at least 100 pounds of steelhead, prosecutors said. The men were charged on Tuesday with unlawful trafficking of fish, a felony.

“It’s bad enough when they’re stealing by harvesting illegally. They’ve added to the egregiousness by then making a profit,” said Mike Cenci, a marine patrol captain with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Agents say the men are believed to be connected to a fish-poaching ring that was operating out of several other states. Earlier this year, eight men were indicted in Missouri on federal charges for poaching and trafficking in American paddlefish and their eggs. More than 100 other people were arrested or cited for their part in illegally selling Missouri paddlefish to national and international caviar markets.

American paddlefish, also known as spoonbills, are native to the Mississippi River watershed. The prehistoric fish can live for decades, weigh up 160 pounds and reach seven feet long. Criminals sell eggs from the boneless fish as higher-quality caviar.

“Paddlefish are often sold under the guise of sturgeon,” Cenci said.

With a decline in the highly-sought-after and expensive sturgeon roe, paddlefish eggs have gained popularity. The increase in demand has led to a decline in the paddlefish population, according to federal fish and wildlife agents. Chinese paddlefish, once plentiful in the Yangtze River, are believed to be almost extinct.

Authorities allege that Igor Stepchuk, 38, of Lynnwood, sold an undercover agent five jars of American paddlefish eggs for $500. He also is accused of illegally selling steelhead, and coho and chinook salmon.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife began investigating Stepchuk after receiving a tip in 2011 that he was trafficking illegal caviar. The agent met with Stepchuk numerous times. His friend Oleg Morozov, of Kent, also is accused of trafficking fish.

Stepchuk, a convicted felon, eventually offered to sell the agent steelhead, court papers said. He reportedly told the agent he had poached about 100 pounds of steelhead. It isn’t clear where he caught them. He reportedly showed the agent a freezer full of fish.

Non-tribal fishermen are banned from selling steelhead. Commercial and recreational salmon fishing also is heavily regulated.

Cenci said it’s also illegal to catch fish by snagging, which often means dragging a hook through the water and impaling the fish, rather than waiting for a fish to bite.

“It’s offensive to sportsmen and sportswomen. It’s a matter of ethics,” Cenci said.

The defendants reportedly went on to sell the undercover agent more than a dozen jars of caviar and more steelhead. In total, the men charged the agent more than $4,500 for the fish and eggs.

Detectives sent samples of the caviar and fish to the department’s molecular genetics laboratory to confirm the species. The lab is used primarily to help manage wildlife and fish resources, but enforcement agents use the facility to assist with criminal investigations. DNA testing was done, and the samples were consistent with steelhead and chinook and coho salmon, court records said.

“That kind of activity has a great impact when you’re dealing with endangered salmon runs,” Cenci said.

Bob Heirman, conservationist and longtime secretary-treasurer for the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club, has been planting salmon and trout in Snohomish County for decades.

Poachers are “robbing resources while some people are trying to recover them,” Heirman said.

Stepchuk and Morozov are expected to answer to the charges later this month in Snohomish County Superior Court.

Unfortunately, the state’s fish and wildlife species often find their way to illegal national and international markets, Cenci said. “We’ve seen everything poached from roe to bear gallbladders,” he said.

He encourages seafood eaters to make sure they are buying from licensed and legitimate sellers. “If there aren’t people willing to buy (illegal products) the incentive to poach for profit goes away,” Cenci said.

Salmon using restored tidal channels in Skokomish Tidelands

Skokomish steelhead biologist Matt Kowalski and natural resources technician Aaron Johnson slowly drag a seine net through one of the small channels in the Skokomish Tidelands to gather a sample of marine life.
Skokomish steelhead biologist Matt Kowalski and natural resources technician Aaron Johnson slowly drag a seine net through one of the small channels in the Skokomish Tidelands to gather a sample of marine life.

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

The Skokomish Tribe has solid data showing how salmon are using the Skokomish Tidelands after a year of monitoring the 400-acre restored estuary.

While the tribe monitors the estuary year round, the first full year of sampling (December 2011 to November 2012) showed 20 fish species, including chinook, chum and coho salmon, using both the large and small tidal channels in the restored areas of the estuary.

Prior to 2006, the estuaries had been filled with fish-blocking culverts, dikes and roads for 70 years, preventing development of good fish habitat. Restoration started in 2007, which included removing man-made structures and opening historic tidal channels that allow juvenile fish to find places to feed and hide while heading out to the ocean.

“Chinook were found in 90 percent of the channels and chum were found in 100 percent of them,” said Matt Kowalski, the tribe’s steelhead biologist. “This proves that salmon have access to and are utilizing the restoration sites.”

All 20 different species were captured in large channels, while only nine different species were captured in small channels and were mostly salmon, stickleback and sculpins, he said.

“Some of the small channels are old drainage ditches that had limited fish access and others are completely newly formed channels from the restoration,” Kowalski said. “Over time, a more complex system of small channels will form and provide more and higher quality habitat for fish.”

In addition to fish monitoring, restoration work will continue this summer with more dike and culvert removal, connecting the restored 400-acre estuary to 600 acres of forested wetlands.

Which Fish Get To Recolonize After Elwha’s Dams Are Gone?


May 9, 2013 | KUOW


This is the second in a two-part series..

From where Mike McHenry stands he can see several gray, torpedo-shaped bodies moving slowly through the brown water of this side channel of the Elwha River, not too far from the site of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.

“You are looking at several wild winter steelhead. These are the native remnant stock of the Elwha River,” explains McHenry, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s fisheries habitat biologist.

These fish are some of the last wild steelhead in the Elwha – biologists estimate that there are between 200 and 300 left, and they’re here to spawn. But despite the fact that tearing down two dams has opened nearly 70 miles of pristine habitat on the upper Elwha River and its tributaries in the Olympic National Park, it’s made life rather difficult for fish in this river right now.

Millions of cubic yards of sediment and debris are flowing down from above the two dams, making this murky lower stretch of the river a bad place to spawn. But nevertheless, these few wild fish represent the prospect of a restored river, populated with thousands of salmon and steelhead – rivaling the numbers of fish that were here before the dams went in 100 years ago.

With that future in mind, McHenry and a team of field biologists and technicians are capturing, tagging and relocating these ready-to-spawn steelhead into a clear tributary of the Elwha, above the former site of the lower dam.

It’s a fascinating scene, filled with silvery flailing and splashing and men carrying fish from the pool up the hill to the waiting tanks to be anesthetized and tagged before the drive to the drop-off point upstream.

Then all that activity is brought to a halt by a slightly sleepy steelhead resting in a tank. It’s captured the attention of John McMillan, a contract biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This is probably broodstock,” McMillan says.

Broodstock is another term for a fish that has spent time in a hatchery, even though its parents were wild.

This moment of discovery symbolizes a much larger debate playing out as different groups struggle over how best to rebuild the Elwha’s fish runs.

A broodstock fish discovered among wild steelhead. Credit: Ashley Ahearn
A broodstock fish discovered among wild steelhead. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

The Great Hatchery Debate

The 20th century wasn’t just an era of dam building in the Northwest. It’s also when hatcheries went up along the region’s rivers to supplement wild populations reduced by those dams, among other causes.

Some Native Americans support hatchery use as a way to restore fish runs that provided subsistence for earlier generations before the dams. But there are some who think hatcheries should not be used to speed up the return of wild, native fish.

It’s not just tribes that favor hatcheries on the Elwha as a way to provide a safe haven to keep native-origin steelhead alive in the tumultuous conditions that have accompanied dam removal.

“In this case what is very clear, crystal clear to us, is that the fish are in such bad shape and the conditions in the river are so unprecedented that any risk that the hatchery poses to these fish is more than outweighed by the benefits,” says Rob Jones, chief of production for inland fisheries with the National Marine Fisheries Service – one of the defendants in a lawsuit to stop the use of fish hatcheries on the Elwha.

Jones says wild steelhead numbers are dangerously low in the Elwha so the hatchery is necessary to steelhead survival. “The job is to help them hang on until these conditions improve enough and then, the strategy is, as we see that improvement that we start to phase out the hatchery.”

Jones says the hatcheries will be phased out when salmon and steelhead numbers increase, but the Elwha River Fish Restoration Plan does not give a set timeframe or hard date when the hatcheries will be removed.

Small-Brained Fish Or The JV Team?

Research has shown that when some types of salmon and steelhead are raised in hatcheries they can become domesticated. Other research suggests hatchery fish’s brains don’t grow as big and steelhead hatchery fish don’t produce as many offspring once they’re released. They’re also less likely to survive to adulthood than wild fish. But as the two hatcheries on the Elwha have demonstrated for years now, they’re a way to ensure that fish return to the river when conditions are hostile for wild, native fish.

The lawsuit over hatcheries in the Elwha recovery plan is a measure of how staunchly some groups oppose them.

“We believe that wild fish in the Elwha would recover better in the absence of hatchery influence,” says Jamie Glasgow, director of science and research for the Wild Fish Conservancy. “You cannot raise a fish in a hatchery without having a negative impact on it’s genetics and its behavior.”

The Wild Fish Conservancy is one of the non-profits that filed the lawsuit against the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the National Marine Fisheries Service and several governmental agencies responsible for the Elwha restoration project.

The group says that hatcheries aren’t necessary for fish recovery in the Elwha, but if hatcheries are going to beallowed, it should only be for a limited time.

“From our perspective the plan lacks teeth,” says Glasgow. “It does not give us assurance and a real commitment to when hatchery production will be stopped.”

But keep in mind, the recovery process, underway on the Elwha right now, is unlike anything scientists have ever encountered. It is truly a grand experiment. No government or tribe has ever tried anything like this before – and no one knows exactly how it will play out.

Here’s the central question: with so few wild salmon and steelhead in the Elwha, should hatchery fish like be used as sort of junior varsity subs to boost the overall numbers of fish in this river as it recovers post-dam removal?

The science isn’t settled on how hatcheries impact wild fish, though there’s been a debate among fisheries managers on that for years.

Right now the Elwha is a difficult place to live if you’re a salmon or steelhead but it’s not impossible. Last year 500 wild Chinook made the journey above the lower dam to spawn on their own.

‘We Need To Make A Decision’

The debate over hatchery use in the Elwha recovery is playing out in real time as Mike McHenry stands over the tank and looks down at the fish with the nibbled dorsal fin that John McMillan has singled out as possibly coming from the nearby hatchery.

“Here’s where we need to make a decision,” he says, looking at McMillan.

Do the biologists bring these hatchery fish up into the pristine habitat above the dam? Or do they leave them here?

The team decides to bring two hatchery-raised fish upstream, along with six wild steelhead, to be released into the newly-available habitat above the former site of the lower dam.

McHenry leans down into the cold clear waters of this side creek and unzips a black bag. Two large steelhead slip slowly into the shadows along the bank nearby.

The biologists have DNA samples from all of the fish they’re releasing today – hatchery and wild. Mike McHenry and John McMillan say that will allow them to see who spawned with whom and which pairings led to more successful offspring.

“It’s a mixture, and that’s what we have,” McHenry says. McMillan nods his head in agreement.

“Yeah. It’s all we have to work with and you figure nature will sort it out ultimately. Nature sorts out who wins and who loses — and it will.”

For now anyway, nature is getting a little bit of help in the natural selection process.

Wednesday: Elwha River Recovery Proceeds Despite Sediment Setbacks.

Northwest Tribes Maximize Steelhead Populations

8:12 amThu March 28, 2013

 By Aaron Kunz

Steelhead in the Columbia River Basin are threatened. Current populations have dwindled to a fraction of the historic numbers a century ago. That has led two Northwest Indian Tribes to try something new to help this struggling fish survive.  Both tribes are learning from each other along the way.

The snow is almost gone in north Idaho. But it’s still cold, almost freezing on this early morning at the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery near Orofino.

That’s Andrew Pierce with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission or “CRITFC.” He and several dozen Nez Perce tribal members pull large fish from tanks of water. The fish are weighed and measured. Then the eggs and what’s called milt – or semen – are removed. This is all part of an artificial spawning program. The eggs and milt will be combined later in plastic tubes. It’s a process that has a higher success than if the fish were to spawn naturally in the river.

Salmon and Steelhead die in the traditional artificial spawning process which involves killing the fish then surgically removing the eggs and milt.

While salmon die naturally after spawning, Steelhead don’t. They return to the ocean and back to Northwest rivers year after year. Scott Everett is a Nez Perce project manager who says his tribe decided that to maximize the natural process, they needed a method of artificial spawning that didn’t kill the fish. That’s what they are doing here.

“Instead of killing the fish, you’re filling the body cavity with air and that essentially forces the eggs out,” Everett says.

The steelhead are then placed in large tanks for a few weeks to recover. Females that spawn repeatedly are known as kelts. That’s how this program got it’s name – Kelt Reconditioning Program. Everett says the goal is to rebuild the once abundant populations of steelhead that northwest tribes have traditionally relied on along with salmon. Overfishing, water quality and hundreds of dams that make passage difficult for the fish have impacted steelhead numbers over the years.

“We’re hopefully getting enough fish alive that we can actually put them in our reconditioning project here and keep them alive for three to six month or longer and get them back out in the river,” Everett says.

Thats where the Yakama Nation tribe comes in. The central Washington tribe has been using the Kelt Reconditioning Program for 14-years.

Read full article here