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Biologist opposes detail in catch-and-release proposals for Grande Ronde steelhead

FISHING — Comment are due on Dec. 1 for a proposed a rule that would require anglers to keep all hatchery steelhead they catch on most of southeastern Washington, including the Grande Ronde with the exception of the first 2.5 miles up from the mouth.

See story here for the explanation of why the state is seeking the rule change.

To say the least, the proposal is causing a lot of discussion among anglers:

  • Catch-and-release enthusiasts would see good fishing days shortened if they had to stop after the second or third hatchery fish was taken into possession as required.
  • Wild steelhead advocates say anglers should participate in the effort to keep hatchery steelhead from fouling the spawning areas of wild steelhead.

Check out this and other proposals and make comments online.

Zero in the the stream strategy proposals here.   Look under Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Walla Walla, and Whitman counties.

Some anglers are confused as to why the proposed rule would be more lenient on catch-and-release fishing in the 2.5 miles of the Grande Ronde up from its mouth to the county bridge.

Glen Mendel, a recently retired Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist who devoted much of his career to steelhead in southeastern Washington waters, supports catch and release in the lower section of the Grande Ronde but opposes the rule as proposed

He says he supports continuing catch-and-release in the lower Grande Ronde.  "I am recommending against harvest in the lower 2.5 miles," he said.  

To help anglers understand what's at stake, he put together the following explanation of his thoughts on the proposal. Read them ALL THE WAY TO THE END.

(Slide through the images above to see the graphics to which he refers in his text.)

As the recently retired fish management biologist for SE WA, I would like to provide some perspective regarding the current steelhead regulations in the lower 2.5 miles of the Grande Ronde River, as well as explain why I don’t think the regulations should change there to allow retention of steelhead.

In the 1970s, steelhead returns to SE WA were very poor and restrictions (including closures) were put in place in an effort to protect wild steelhead populations.  Public meetings occurred regarding steelhead regulations and fishery options for the Grande Ronde River within Washington.  Anglers were in disagreement, with some anglers wanting only catch and release fisheries and others wanting harvest opportunities.  These meetings were apparently contentious.  The lower  2 ½ miles set up as a catch and release fishery for steelhead as early as 1975, and later in the mid 1980s the remainder of the river was opened to provide opportunities to harvest returning hatchery steelhead produced as part of the Lower Snake River Compensation program in WA and OR.   Suggestions regarding changing the steelhead fishing regulations in the Grande Ronde have continued to come in nearly every year by various fishing interests that propose either allowing harvest throughout the entire Grande Ronde River within WA, or changing it all to catch and release and/ or fly fishing only.

The current fishing opportunities have proven to be popular and the Grande Ronde steelhead fisheries in southeast Washington (SE WA) attract anglers from all over the northwest and the nation (see figs. 1, and 2 from WDFW for anglers interviewed in both the upper portion of the Grande Ronde River in WA, and Fig. 3 from the lower 2 ½ miles).  These fisheries are nationally renowned and promoted in most regional and national fishing magazines.  Anglers are known to stay to fish the Grande Ronde for 3-30 consecutive days.  Therefore, it should be obvious that the Grande Ronde steelhead fisheries provide substantial contributions to the state and local economies.              

Many anglers are attracted to the relatively unique steelhead fishing opportunities in the lower 2 ½ miles of the Grande Ronde River (from the mouth to the County Road Bridge), plus many (~39% in 2013) of those anglers have extended fishing trips of 7 days or longer in this area (Figure 3).  This lower river section is bordered on both sides by easy road and river access, plus it is relatively close to population centers at Lewiston, ID, and Asotin and Clarkston, WA.  This area is also adjacent to fishery areas on the Snake River and upper portions of the Grande Ronde (within WA and OR) that allow harvest opportunities and provide other steelhead fishery options (e.g. use of drift boats on both rivers, and power boats on the Snake River) that are not available in the lower zone of the Grande Ronde.  Quality steelhead fishing exists on the lower 2 ½ miles of the Grande Ronde River during September through early November, with some anglers having reported catching as many as 10-20 steelhead in a single day there.  Few holes and preferred fishing areas exist in this 2 ½ miles and fishing can be crowded at times during the peak fall months.  This zone provides a highly valued, quality, fishing experience for steelhead anglers because of its lower river location where fish tend to stack up, its close proximity to other adjacent fishing areas with different fishing opportunities, and its regulations that require selective gear catch and release fishing.  The proposed change to the regulations and the fishery in this zone of the Grande Ronde River is not necessary to allow harvest or to try to maintain consistency of the mandatory hatchery steelhead retention requirement  because the fishing regulations in this 2 ½ mile zone of the Grande Ronde will not make, break, or substantially contribute to, recovery or restoration of wild steelhead populations as it comprises less than 1% of all the river miles open for steelhead fishing within SE WA (including the Snake, Grande Ronde, Tucannon, Touchet and Walla Walla rivers). 

However, current regulations do provide a highly valued and unique steelhead fishing opportunity in SE WA.  This area should continue to be managed as it is under current regulations to provide a quality fishery and to provide different fishery experiences within about a 5-10 mile radius of the mouth of the Grande Ronde.  It is not uncommon for Fish and Wildlife agencies to attempt to provide different types of hunting or fishing opportunities for the public by changing the timing and area of open seasons, as well as adjusting the gear type or harvest regulations to address the desires of different hunting or fishing publics.  Not all these types of changes are intended as conservation actions. 

As examples of efforts to create different opportunities, different hunting seasons and regulations (e.g. archery, muzzleloader and modern firearm) are offered to meet different management objectives and public hunting preferences in WA, plus about 35 miles away from the lower Grande Ronde the Idaho Department of Fish and Game provides catch and release steelhead fisheries each year in the lower Clearwater River until October 15 in order to maintain a highly valued, and relatively unique, fishing experience prior to opening that area for crowds and harvest.

I strongly recommend that WDFW reconsider the proposed change and maintain the current steelhead regulations and the catch and release steelhead fishery in the lower Grande Ronde River.  I see no need to change the current regulations for that lower zone. 

I am very concerned that allowing harvest in this 2 ½ mile zone, with its easy access on both sides of the river, limited number of preferred fishing areas available, and the very large crowds of anglers that take up residence during the fall months in adjacent areas at Heller Bar (as well as within a 30 minute to 4 hour drive) would likely destroy this great fishery and a great combination of adjacent fishing opportunities that currently satisfy differing recreational fisheries. 

This area is likely to become very crowded under the proposed harvest option and it may increase the frequency of angler disputes there. 

I recommend maintaining the current very high quality, and highly valued, catch and release fishery in the lower 2 ½ miles of the Grande Ronde River, at least during the three primary fall fishing months of September, October and November.

Surplus steelhead being dumped into trout lakes

FISHING – The steelheader’s loss will be the trout angler’s bonanza.

About 340,000 young steelhead raised at hatcheries to be released in Puget Sound streams will instead be stocked in Western Washington trout lakes this month.

A lawsuit filed by wild steelhead advocates prevented Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife managers from releasing the young steelhead this spring in most streams where they've been released for years.

Rather than waste the fish, they were kept at the hatcheries and raised to catchable sizes of 11-13 inches, said Chris Donley, state inland fish program manager.

The fish are being stocked into 47 West Side lakes, including 19 lakes where the catch limit will be increased from five to 10 trout beginning Oct. 18. 

The number of fish being stocked in the lakes is four times greater than last fall, Donley said, noting that fishing through the holidays should be excellent.

Sprague Lake is the only Eastern Washington lake to get a boost from the surplus steelhead.

To relieve pressure on hatcheries this spring, about 370,000 small steelhead were stocked in Sprague, where those that weren’t consumed by bass and channel catfish have grown to 13 or more inches long, Donley said.

Details on where the fall fish are being stocked are online.

Can Sprague Lake steelhead windfall result in trout?

FISHING — We'll know by fall if the attempt to salvage court-settlement-doomed steelhead smolts by stocking them in Sprague Lake will be good for fishermen — or whether the 369,000 million smolts being stocked will simply be dying and feeding bass, gulls, cormorants and pelicans.

It's a million-dollar question. Keep your fingers crossed.

State settles hatchery steelhead lawsuit

FISHING – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reached an agreement with the Wild Fish Conservancy today that stops the lawsuit over the state's Puget Sound hatchery programs for 2½ years and permits the release of hatchery steelhead this spring into the Skykomish River. 

No early winter steelhead will be released into other Puget Sound rivers in 2014.

The agreement is reflected in a federal court consent decree signed by WDFW Director Phil Anderson and Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee. The decree is designed to settle a lawsuit filed by the Conservancy last month in U.S. District Court in Seattle, the agency says in a media release. 

In its March 31 complaint, the Duvall-based non-profit group claimed the department’s Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) by impairing the recovery of wild steelhead, salmon, and bull trout. All three species are listed as “threatened” under the ESA. 

While acknowledging that certain hatchery practices may pose risks to wild fish productivity and recovery, WDFW officials denied the Conservancy’s claim and said the department has taken numerous steps based on current science to ensure its hatchery operations protect wild steelhead and other listed fish species. 

Read on for more details from the WDFW.

Hatchery fish are slow pokes, WSU study finds

FISHERIES — This isn't the first study to find that hatchery-reared salmonids tend to be inferior in one way or another to wild trout, steelhead and salmon, but it's the latest.

The report is released a day after Washington designated three steelhead rivers to be sanctuaries for wild fish by ending hatchery releases.

 Following is the just-released story by Washington State University science writer Eric Sorenson regarding the latest research:

Washington State University researchers have documented dramatic differences in the swimming ability of domesticated trout and their wilder relatives. The study calls into question the ability of hatcheries to mitigate more than a century of disturbances to wild fish populations.

Kristy Bellinger, who did the study for her work on a Ph.D. in zoology, said traditional hatcheries commonly breed for large fish at the cost of the speed they need to escape predators in the wild.

  • See Bellinger discussing her research in this YouTube video

“The use of hatcheries to support declining wild salmon and steelhead is controversial,” said Bellinger. “They have a role as being both a part of the solution in supplementing depleted stocks and as being a hindrance to boosting natural populations, as they often produce fish that look and behave differently from their wild relatives.”

Bellinger conducted the study with Gary Thorgaard, a nationally recognized fish geneticist and professor in WSU’s School of Biological Sciences, and her advisor, Associate Professor Patrick Carter. Their work is published in the journal Aquaculture.

The study used a sort of speed trap for fish, a meter-long plastic tank filled with water and fitted with electronic sensors. Over 10 weeks, Bellinger repeatedly ran 100 clonal (genetically similar) hatchery-raised and semi-wild rainbow trout through the tank, clocking their speed and monitoring their growth from week to week.  The clonal rainbow trout were propagated on the WSU campus.

The domesticated fish tended to grow faster. But while increased size is generally seen as a sign of fitness, the researchers saw that wasn’t the case as far as speed is concerned. “The highly domesticated fish have bigger body sizes but slower swim speeds compared to the more wild lines that are smaller,” said Bellinger. “It is intuitive to think that the more you feed them, the more they’re going to grow, the faster they’re going to be, and that’s what we see within each clonal line.  However, between the lines, the domesticated fish were larger but slower sprinters.”

Over the past century, hatcheries have become a mainstay of recreational fishing, providing millions of trout and other salmonids to lakes and streams. More recently, hatcheries have come to be seen as tools in conserving native stocks. The state of Washington has more than 200 hatcheries, with most producing salmon and steelhead, an ocean-running trout, and about one-fourth producing trout and other game fish.

Hatchery managers, said Bellinger, tend to select for large fish.

“Fish managers want the biggest bang for their buck,” she said. “But if increased size is a tradeoff of sprint speed, as our data show, then we assume hatchery fish are being picked off by predators due to their slower speed, which makes the process of supplementing native fish with hatchery fish an inefficient tool for conservation and a waste of money.”

The research was funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Three West Side rivers labeled “wild steelhead gene banks;” hatchery fish excluded

FISHERIES – Three tributaries of the lower Columbia River have been designated as “wild steelhead gene banks,” where it will no longer release steelhead raised in fish hatcheries, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department has announced.

Starting this year, WDFW will no longer plant hatchery steelhead in the East Fork Lewis River or the North Fork Toutle/Green River

The Wind River, which has not been stocked with steelhead since 1997, will also be off-limits to any future releases.

Read on for the details from the WDFW:

Idaho dedicates hatchery to wild sockeye revival

FISHERIES — State and federal officials are gathering today just outside of Springfield, Idaho, near American Falls Reservoir to mark the completion of a new hatchery that will take the recovery of Snake River sockeye to a higher level.

The $13.5 million facility will be capable of producing up to 1 million juvenile sockeye annually for release in the Sawtooth Basin of central Idaho, the headwaters of the Salmon River.

This additional incubation and rearing space will move the sockeye recovery effort from the conservation phase to a re-colonization phase where emphasis will be on returning increasing numbers of ocean-run adults to use in hatchery spawning and to release to the habitat for natural spawning.

The increase may eventually lead to recreational and tribal fishing seasons.

The hatchery will be operated by Idaho Fish and Game. It was was funded by the Bonneville Power Administration as part of its obligation to mitigate the impact of hydropower dams on salmon and steelhead.

Read on for more details about the hatchery and the history of the remarkable fish that, despite the formidable barriers of dams and reservoirs, make a 900-mile return up the Columbia and Snake River systems to their spawning areas in the Sawtoon Mountains.

Fish, wildlife recreation to get boost from Boundary Dam license approval

UPDATE:  State fish managers say the small fish hatchery to be built under this licensing agreement will be devoted to restoring native cutthroat and bull trout.  Fish for stocking in northeast Washington lakes under the agreement will come from existing hatcheries under a contract between the utility and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

RIVERS — The license for Boundary Dam has met the requirements for approval with no appeals submitted, according to Seattle City Light, and that spells the beginning of projects to improve wildlife habitat, recreational facilities and fisheries along the Pend Oreille River.

The license was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in March, but utility officials said today that the final hurdles had been cleared. 

Under the new 42-year license, City Light will be required to mitigate the impacts of the dam to the surrounding environment in Pend Oreille County. These measures include long-term water quality monitoring programs, terrestrial habitat improvements, and wildlife monitoring programs for bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other species.

For example, Mill Pond Dam on Sullivan Creek will be removed under the agreement, clearing the way for fish passage — and kayakers — for the first time since 1909.

A native trout conservation hatchery is planned to raise cutthroats and bull trout that will be planted to help restore the native species in tributaries to the Boundary Reservoir. Required habitat restoration in these tributaries will benefit westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout and mountain whitefish.

Contracts will be signed with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to provide fish of various species from other hatcheries to stock in area lakes.

The utility is required to make avariety of recreational improvements in the Boundary project area including:

  • New recreational trails on the east side of the reservoir.
  • New non-motorized boat access with parking and facilities at the Metaline Falls Portage.
  • Upgrading six dispersed recreation sites along the Boundary reservoir, including sanitation systems, picnic tables, fire rings and watercraft land and tie-up areas.
  • Improvements to Metaline Park boat launch in the town of Metaline.
  • New interpretation and education sites throughout the Boundary project area.

“This has been a long and carefully managed process, drawing input from many stakeholders and taking into account wildlife protection, recreational and cultural amenities, and the water quality of the Pend Oreille River,” said City Light General Manager Jorge Carrasco.

Approval of the 42-year license is a critical economic benefit to City Light’s customers and to Pend Oreille PUD customers whose primary source of electricity is low-cost Boundary power, he said

Read on for details about the conclusion of the license renewal process, according to a Seattle City Light media release:

Colville Tribe opens $51 million salmon hatchery

FISHING — The new Chief Joseph fish hatchery that will release nearly 3 million salmon to the wild each year is being dedicated today along the Columbia River in north-central Washington new Brewster, marking the opening of the first hatchery designed and built under new scientific recommendations intended to boost fish survival rates in the Pacific Northwest.

Read on for the Associated Press report with more explanation on why this hatchery has benefits that override previous concerns over the impact of hatchery fish on native stocks.

Chief Joseph salmon hatchery to open June 20; tours offered

FISHING — The Chief Joseph Hatchery, designed to release up to 2.9 million chinook salmon into the Columbia River, will be dedicated and tours will be offered on Thursday (June 20) during a celebration organized by the Colville Confederated Tribes.

The $50 million state-of-the-art hatchery, between Bridgeport and Chief Joseph Dam, has been built with funding from the Bonneville Power Administration in cooperation with state and federal agencies. It will be managed by the tribe.

 The facility will provide chinook for the tribe, boost Columbia sport fishing and facilitate reintroduction of spring chinook to the Okanogan River.

Read on for more details and a schedule of events and tours for the Thursday ribbon-cutting celebration.

Idaho hatchery to boost endangered sockeye

FISHING – Construction on a once-abandoned sockeye fish hatchery project in eastern Idaho intended to bolster Idaho’s breeding program is back on schedule, Idaho Fish and Game officials said.

The $13.5 million Springfield Fish Hatchery between Aberdeen and Blackfoot should be finished by November.

Hatchery manager Doug Engemann said the hatchery is intended to boost the number of endangered sockeye salmon returning to Redfish Lake near Stanley in central Idaho. The Bonneville Power Administration is paying for the hatchery that’s being built on a 73-acre site.

“We’re moving past the genetic conservation component of the program into a bonafide stock rebuilding, stock recovery program,” Engemann said.

Upper Columbia salmon hatchery previewed

FISHING — The BPA-funded upper Columbia River salmon hatchery being built near Bridgeport and managed under the direction of the Colville Confederated Tribes is scheduled to go online in May.

The Seattle Times posted this update on the project, which should greatly enhance salmon fishing potential in the Columbia and Okanogan rivers.

Colville Fish Hatchery sale to county approved

FISHING — The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission today approved the sale of the state’s Colville Fish Hatchery to Stevens County, which plans to use it as an educational and vocational learning center.

The commission approved a proposal to sell the 95-year-old trout hatchery for its appraised value of $150,000 during a public meeting in Olympia.

“This is really a win-win for the department and Stevens County,” said Commissioner Gary Douvia, who lives in Colville and helped to champion the sale. “While the hatchery may be past its prime, it’s still a real asset for the community.”

Dan Budd, WDFW real estate manager, said the state acquired the trout hatchery from Stevens County in 1933 and operated it for nearly 80 years. WDFW closed the facility last June and moved most of the fish production to the Spokane Hatchery to cut costs in response to state budget reductions, he said.

Douvia said the county plans to create a non-profit organization to work with area schools to operate the facility and use it as a learning center. Students will learn hatchery-management skills at an on-site classroom affiliated with the Spokane-based NEWTECH Skill Center and supported by local Stevens County school districts.

“The last time I checked, 22 students had signed up – and the program isn’t even up and running yet,” Douvia said.

Trout produced by the students will provide additional fish for local lakes and boost the local economy, he said. In addition, the terms of contract allow WDFW to credit Stevens County for the value of those fish toward the amount owed for the hatchery.

The current 19.4-acre property includes water rights and a small house. The Colville Confederated Tribes provided operational funding for the hatchery from 2010 through 2012, before it was closed last June.

No harm in hatchery salmon having wild time

FISHERIES — Recent reports from a new fisheries study goes against the grain of previous science by suggesting there's no harm in hatchery salmon spawning with wild salmon — at least not the first time.

See Columbia Basin Bulletin's detailed report.

Sockeye first in 45 years to upper Deschutes River basin

FISHERIES — The first observed spawning sockeye salmon in the Metolius River in more than 45 years was reported on Sept. 27 by an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist. 

The Metolius joins the Crooked and Deschutes rivers in central Oregon’s Lake Billy Chinook above the Pelton-Round Butte hydro project, which has for that half century blocked upstream passage of anadromous fish – salmon and steelhead that are born in freshwater, mature at sea and then return to spawn in their natal streams.

The three rivers become the Deschutes, which flows about 100 miles downstream from the dam complex before entering the Columbia River.

Seet the Columbia Basin Bulletin's detailed report.

Study downplays impacts of hatchery-native salmon interbreeding

FISHING — Scientists are rewriting some of their findings regarding the competition in native streams between wild and htchery salmon.  See the report from the Oregonian:


Idaho study: No problems with hatchery, wild salmon interbreeding


A long-term study of summer chinook in Idaho's Johnson Creek found that the interbreeding of hatchery salmon with wild salmon had no ill effects, thus supporting "hatchery supplementation" of salmon populations done by tribes in the Northwest for years.

Dworshak Reservoir nearly at full pool

BOATING — Dworshak Reservoir is within 5 feet of full pool today. That's lower than normal for the Fourth of July holiday, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still leaving room for the unusually high, late snowpack to pour out of the mountains.

Officials flew the headwaters Tuesday and determined about 10 percent of the area was still snow covered.

“We’ll be at about 1 foot from full pool (1,600 feet) on July 5, and anticipate reaching full pool by July 10,” said Steve Hall, Corps reservoir manager.

All campgrounds and boat ramps are open.

Info: Dworshak Dam Visitor Center, (208) 476-1255. 

Dworshak Dam Visitor Center is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Infected steelhead killed at Dworshak Hatchery

FISHERIES — Managers at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery say they have destroyed 332,000 juvenile summer steelhead since April to protect the rest of the hatchery’s fish from a deadly virus.

In April, 240,000 steelhead were destroyed after IHNV was confirmed in some rearing tanks by the Idaho Fish Health Center.

Officials say they still expect to have enough fish to meet their requirements for mitigating the impacts of Dworshak Dam on wild fisheries.

Read on for details.

Wild rainbow trout racing hatchery trout in WSU lab

FISHING — The race is on between wild rainbow trout and hatchery-raised trout, as Washington State University researchers measure their speed to see who's fastest — and most likely to survive in streams and lakes.

Which fish do you think wins most of the races at the WSU lab?

Check out the video above, or read on for more details.

Group tours offered at Spokane Fish Hatchery

FISHERIES — This is a good time of year to see how trout are produced in Spokane for the updoming fishing season:

It's before the fair-weather rush of school groups and prime time to see fish in all stages, including the egg stage.

The Spokane Fish Hatchery is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week year-round for self-guided observation of fish and fish-rearing activity.

While Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery workers do not have time to show visitors around, trained volunteers can be scheduled to give guided tours for groups of 15 or more.

  • To schedule a tour, call  (509) 892-1001.
  • To volunteer to be trained to help with tours or to donate to the hatchery tour program, contact Mike Coyle, (509) 220-3004.