Upper Skagit Tribe harvests last full return of hatchery steelhead



By Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


It’s the end of an era for Upper Skagit tribal fishermen as the last full return of hatchery steelhead arrives in the Skagit River this winter.

“Our ancestors gave up everything so that we could continue to fish in our traditional areas,” said Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “Without hatchery production, we can’t have a meaningful fishery.”

The last full steelhead fishery is especially bittersweet for Schuyler, whose 14-year-old daughter just received her first tribal fishing card. “Maybe she’ll be able to have one day of fishing a year,” he said. “That’s not a meaningful fishery.”

Steelhead are a culturally important species that the Upper Skagit Tribe harvests for commercial, ceremonial and subsistence purposes. Historically, steelhead were available during the long winter months when other species were not available to feed tribal families.

Hatchery programs have been a part of fisheries management in Washington for more than 100 years, making up for lost natural production as a result of degraded and destroyed habitat. Guided by science, hatchery management in western Washington is carefully managed to protect the genetic health of wild fish. In the Skagit River, hatchery programs also provide mitigation for the ongoing effects of hydroelectric plants.

Last spring, the Wild Fish Conservancy sued the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) over hatchery winter steelhead programs that used Chambers Creek broodstock.

“Hatcheries are under attack,” Schuyler said. “Taking away hatchery programs leaves tribes under certain circumstances with a severely diminished or no opportunity.”

The Upper Skagit Tribe, along with the Lummi Nation and Tulalip and Stillaguamish tribes, released a statement at the time of the lawsuit saying that the Wild Fish Conservancy “erroneously concluded that hatchery production, rather than the loss of habitat, is responsible for the depressed state of the Puget Sound Steelhead populations.”

However, WDFW settled the lawsuit, agreeing to halt the release of Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead in all Puget Sound rivers but one, until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approves each program. The settlement also put a 12-year moratorium of steelhead hatchery releases in the Skagit River.

This year will be the Upper Skagit Tribe’s last full season fishing for hatchery steelhead, with returns reduced starting next year, and gone by 2017.

Whatcom’s new Superior Court judge has tribal background

Raquel Montoya-Lewis, shown in her office at Fairhaven College in 2011, was appointed to a new seat on the Whatcom County Superior Court by Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014.RHYS LOGAN | WWU — Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald
Raquel Montoya-Lewis, shown in her office at Fairhaven College in 2011, was appointed to a new seat on the Whatcom County Superior Court by Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014.
RHYS LOGAN | WWU — Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald


By Ralph Schwartz, Bellingham Herald


Whatcom County will have its first Native American Superior Court judge in 2015.

When Raquel Montoya-Lewis begins her term in January, she also will be the only Superior Court judge of tribal descent in the state.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday, Dec. 15, he had appointed Montoya-Lewis to Whatcom County Superior Court. Montoya-Lewis, 46, is from the New Mexican tribes Pueblo of Laguna and Pueblo of Isleta. She is chief judge for the Nooksack and Upper Skagit tribes, and an associate professor at Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College.

“I’m really excited and honored to serve Whatcom County in this role,” Montoya-Lewis said in a phone interview on Monday. “I also recognize the importance of the appointment in terms of the question of diversity. I think it’s really important that the state court system reflect the people that it serves.”

“Raquel’s 15 years of experience as a judge will be well appreciated on the Superior Court,” Inslee said in a statement. “She is wise and has a strong commitment to service and to promoting justice. I know she will serve the community and the court exceptionally well.”

Montoya-Lewis was named this year to the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. She also is an appellate judge for the Northwest Intertribal Court System.

She was heartily endorsed by Bellingham City Council member Roxanne Murphy, a member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe.

“She has handled some of our most complex cultural, political and societal issues and managed these cases with the utmost care, intelligence, timeliness and fairness,” Murphy wrote in an email to the governor she sent on Wednesday, Dec. 10.

Montoya-Lewis has presided over the highly publicized “Nooksack 306” case in tribal court. The tribal council seeks to disenroll 306 members who the council says were mistakenly added to the rolls in the 1980s. The case has gone back and forth, but Montoya-Lewis has generally ruled in favor of the council, saying it has broad authority over membership decisions.

Montoya-Lewis remains the presiding judge in the case, and she said Monday she couldn’t comment on it.

The governor’s appointment stems from a bill passed by the 2013 Legislature authorizing a fourth Whatcom County Superior Court judge. Inslee’s selection comes two years after Deborra Garrett became the first woman to be elected to Whatcom County Superior Court. Besides gender balance, the appointment provides the court with another judge to take on the backlog of civil and felony criminal cases in the court.

“I think Raquel is going to be able to come in and hit the ground running,” Judge Charles Snyder said. “We’ll probably start giving her cases as soon as she gets in the door.”

Snyder sat with Montoya-Lewis on a panel discussing diversity in the legal system in 2012.

“I found her to be a very bright person who obviously has a good knowledge of the law,” Snyder said on Monday. “She will bring a new perspective, being the first Native American to come on the (Whatcom) bench.”

Montoya-Lewis emphasized her impartiality, regardless of who comes before her in the courtroom.

“There is certainly a large number of native people that come through the civil and criminal court in Whatcom County,” she said. “I think I will bring a unique perspective in serving that part of the community, but I see my role as serving the entire county. I see my role as being fair and neutral and unbiased.”


Tulalips, others oppose state’s move to halt release of hatchery steelhead

By Chris Winters, The Herald

TULALIP — A lawsuit filed against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has led the state to cancel this year’s entire release of hatchery-raised steelhead trout into Western Washington rivers.

That means that there will be virtually no steelhead fishing in 2016 and 2017.

This week the Tulalips and other local American Indian tribes weighed in, blasting the decision by the state to cancel the release, and the lawsuit that forced the move, filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Duvall.

The suit was filed on March 31. In a declaration filed April 16 by Phil Anderson, the director of Fish and Wildlife, he wrote that the department’s plan to protect wild steelhead from genetic hybridization with hatchery fish is under review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, but that he had no expectation it would be approved in time for the release.

That approval is necessary so that the program wouldn’t run afoul of the Endangered Species Act, which lists wild steelhead as threatened. Therefore, Anderson decided there would be no steelhead release this year.

A joint statement issued by the Tulalip Tribes, the Lummi Nation and the Upper Skagit Tribe took issue with the basis for the nonprofit’s lawsuit, which, it said, “erroneously concluded that hatchery production, rather than the loss of habitat, is responsible for the depressed state of the Puget Sound steelhead populations.”

The statement from the tribes urged anglers to contact Gov. Jay Inslee, the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and Anderson and to put pressure on the department.

“Maybe the hatcheries do have some impact, but there are greater impacts out there,” said Ray Fryberg, executive director for natural and cultural resources for the Tulalip Tribes.

Habitat loss, environmental change, perhaps even seals waiting at the mouths of rivers to eat the returning fish probably have a greater impact on wild populations than the hatcheries do, Fryberg said.

The fish at issue is known as Chambers Creek steelhead, a strain raised in six hatcheries in Western Washington, including the Whitehorse Ponds hatchery near Darrington.

The hatchery-raised juveniles are released earlier than when wild steelhead hatch, and the difference in timing allows the hatchery-raised adult steelhead to be fished before the wild runs return to their spawning grounds.

A spokesperson for the Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to comment on the lawsuit or the statement from the tribes.

The conservancy’s suit alleges that the state’s hatchery programs allow Chambers Creek steelhead to interbreed with the wild strains, out-compete the wild fish for food and spawning grounds, and that the hatchery operations themselves have suppressed the wild population.

The wild stocks are so depressed that they are in danger of being listed as endangered, which would drastically affect fishing for all salmonid species in the region, said Kurt Beardslee, the executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Loss of habitat is a critical issue, Beardslee said, but the only two actions that would have an immediate impact on wild populations would be to curtail fishing or to stop hatchery releases.

He cited a recent study conducted in the Skagit River of the impacts of hatchery-raised steelhead on the wild population, one of whose recommendations was to suspend hatchery releases for seven to 10 years to eliminate competition among the species, reduce cross-breeding among populations and increase the survival rate of wild steelhead.

“We have to look at things that can get results immediately,” Beardslee said.

Fryberg said that the lawsuit was a step backward in the struggle to restore wild runs of steelhead and salmon.

“For years and years as co-managers and cooperative managers we’ve always emphasized that we should be working together,” Fryberg said.

With the environment changing rapidly, there is simply no baseline condition to compare it to, and it’s essential to get all the scientific data on the table before acting, he added.

“We have not fished some native runs of fish out here for 20 to 30 years and they still haven’t rebounded,” Fryberg said. “Let’s not run into this hastily.”


Tribes Try Alternative Fishing Gear

Nisqually Tribe uses tangle nets, beach seines to reduce impact on chinook

E. O’ConnellBenji Kautz, Nisqually Tribe, unloads chinook during the tribe’s fishery last fall.
E. O’Connell
Benji Kautz, Nisqually Tribe, unloads chinook during the tribe’s fishery last fall.

E. O’Connell, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Treaty Indian tribes in western Washington are experimenting with fishing methods that help conserve depressed salmon

and steelhead stocks. The Nisqually Tribe began using alternative gear a few years ago, and this spring, the Lummi Nation and Upper Skagit Indian Tribe both held tangle net fisheries. Tangle nets are similar to gillnets, but have a smaller mesh size.

The Nisqually Indian Tribe will continue to lower impacts on returning chinook salmon this year.

“To make good on our recent gains in habitat restoration in the Nisqually, fishermen need to decrease how many natural origin chinook are caught,” said David Troutt, natural resources director for the tribe.

In recent years, the tribe has implemented drastic changes to its fishing regime, including a decrease of 15 fishing days since 2004; reducing the number of nets that can be used by a fisherman from three to two; and having just less than a month of mark-selective fishing with tangle nets and beach seines.

This year’s fishing plan will continue implementing mark-selective fishing, but only with beach seines.

“A historically large run of pink salmon is forecast to come in alongside chinook and coho this year,” Troutt said. Tangle

nets – which ensnare fish by their teeth – would catch an un- usually high number of pinks, which tribal fishermen aren’t targeting.

“Since 2004, Nisqually tribal fishermen have already cut hundreds of hours off their chinook season,” Troutt said. “Tribal fishermen are bearing the brunt of conservation for these fish so we can help them recover.”

In a mark-selective fishery, fishermen release natural origin fish that haven’t had their adipose fin removed in a hatchery. The adipose fin is a soft, fleshy fin found on the back behind the dorsal fin. Its removal does not affect the salmon.

“Mark-selective fisheries are a useful tool and the Nisqually is a unique place in western Washington where it could benefit salmon and tribal fisheries,” Troutt said.

Upper Skagit Tribe surveys habitat use by juvenile chinook, steelhead

upper-skagit-survey_2-300x199Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, http://nwifc.org

The Upper Skagit Tribe and the University of Washington (UW) are doing a two-year study examining seasonal habitat preferences for yearling chinook and steelhead in the Skagit River.

Not all juvenile chinook salmon migrate out to sea right away. They spend a few months to two years in freshwater and estuarine habitat. This study will help researchers learn more about the fish that stay in the Skagit watershed’s freshwater habitat during the first year of life.

The research addresses a known data gap in the Skagit River Chinook Recovery Plan and will help inform recovery efforts for Puget Sound steelhead. Both populations are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

“We’re finding out about habitat preferences for a very significant life history type,” said Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “That will help us decide where to focus our rebuilding efforts.”

The research team is a partnership between the UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the Upper Skagit Natural Resources Department. The team is conducting night snorkel surveys over a two-year period to monitor where the fish are each season. Juvenile habitat use varies throughout the year, because of factors including water temperature, stream flow and competition pressure from other fish.

“We expect to see the largest number of juveniles in the late summer, when the habitat could reach its carrying capacity,” said Jon-Paul Shannahan, a biologist for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “The habitat needs for each species changes over time as the fish grow, and we are hoping to better understand this relationship.”

For each snorkel survey, the researchers collect detailed habitat data. The types of channels surveyed included large mainstem channels, secondary channels, tributaries, and floodplain channels throughout the known spawning distribution of chinook.

For information, contact: Jon-Paul Shannahan, Upper Skagit Tribe, 360-854-7089 or jonpauls@upperskagit.com; Kari Neumeyer, NWIFC, 360-424-8226 or kneumeyer@nwifc.org.