Steelhead releases could be cut back

A fly fisher casts for steelhead at the confluence of the Snake and Grande Ronde rivers.  (Rich Landers)
A fly fisher casts for steelhead at the confluence of the Snake and Grande Ronde rivers. (Rich Landers)

Big runs of hatchery fish compete with native spawners

Is the bounty of hatchery steelhead moving up the Snake River too much of a good thing?

Fishermen certainly don’t think so, and that’s why resentment is simmering on the Washington and Idaho sides of the river regarding hints that fishery managers may reduce the number of steelhead released from hatcheries.

In order to comply with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect wild fish, Washington is considering reducing the number of smolts it releases from steelhead facilities including the Cottonwood rearing facility on the Grande Ronde River just downstream from the Oregon border.

That would reduce the number of hatchery fish available for anglers.

The Grande Ronde-bound steelhead, many of which overwinter in the Snake, provide much of the late fall, winter and spring fishing in the Snake River near Asotin.

Sometime this winter, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department plans to release steelhead management options for public comment.

The number of hatchery fish returning to the Cottonwood facility far exceeds the 1,500 goal set in earlier management plans, said Glen Mendel, WDFW biologist.

“Reducing the releases from Cottonwood is one of the options for reducing competition between hatchery fish and wild fish on spawning beds,” he said.

“Some people are riled up. We’ll work through the options at public meetings.

“If we don’t cut back on the adult returns, what do we do with all the excess fish coming back to Cottonwood? The number goes beyond the capacity of the creek for spawning. If we recycle them downstream for anglers to catch, some of those fish will wander into other creeks and spawn with wild fish, and we don’t want that.

“Then, in April a lot of fishermen are catching fish but they’re not keeping them because the fish are so mature and soft.

“In the past five years, steelheaders have had a really wonderful situation in the Snake and Grande Ronde, but I don’t know whether we’ll be able to maintain it at these levels.”

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