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Toward new management direction

Public comments sought on WDFW's steelhead status assessment

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is seeking public comments on a draft scientific report designed to lay the foundation for a new management plan for Washington steelhead.

Drawing on decades of research and recent analyses, the 365-page report documents the geographical distribution, status, population trends, life history, habitat requirements and harvest history of steelhead in Washington.

The report considers both natural and hatchery-reared fish, and includes dozens of findings and recommendations to guide future management initiatives.

"This assessment is based on the best current scientific information available on Northwest steelhead," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings. "It will provide the scientific foundation for the future management of this important resource."

The draft report, titled "Oncorhynchus mykiss: Assessment of Washington State's Anadromous Populations and Programs," is available on the WDFW website at

Because of the length of the report, electronic access is encouraged, but a printed copy or CD can also be obtained by calling WDFW at (360) 902-2800.

Public comments will be accepted through Sept.15, and should be submitted in writing to William T.Gill, Fish Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way North, Olympia, Wash. 98501-1091. They can also be submitted via e-mail to


After reviewing public comments on the draft report, WDFW plans to issue a final version this fall, Koenings said. The department will then work with Washington treaty tribes, which jointly manage steelhead, to update management practices for steelhead runs throughout the state.

A draft of the first section of the management plan, focusing on Puget Sound steelhead, is scheduled for completion in January 2007. That section of the plan, followed by others addressing steelhead populations throughout the state, will provide guidelines for fishing seasons and hatchery practices in future years, Koenings said.

"Steelhead management is not a one-size-fits-all proposition," said Jim Scott, WDFW's chief fish scientist and principal author of the draft scientific report.

"Conditions vary for each river and steelhead stock in the state, and any new management plan needs to take those differences into consideration," he said.

For example, while noting that the total number of steelhead reaching spawning grounds has increased by nearly 50 percent in recent years, the draft scientific report documents wide variations in the status of individual runs across the


More than 90 percent of the steelhead runs on the Olympic Peninsula and 60 percent in southwest Washington are rated "healthy," but fewer than 20 percent are considered healthy in the rest of the state, according to the draft report.

All wild steelhead stocks on the Columbia and Snake rivers have been listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act since the late 1990s, and NOAA-Fisheries has proposed listing Puget Sound stocks as "threatened" next year.

Among the findings discussed in the draft report:

The proportion of natural-origin steelhead caught by anglers in Washington declined from 26 percent in the 1987-1988 season to approximately 1 percent in the 2004-2005 season, largely due to selective-fishing rules adopted in the mid-1980s.

Fishery management is rapidly shifting from a model focused on the abundance of a single species to consideration of a wide range of factors, including genetic diversity, productivity, spatial distribution and community ecology.

Effective steelhead management must consider habitat, harvest and hatchery practices through an integrated strategy, rather than considering these factors in isolation.

Use of a limited number of stocks in hatchery programs may pose a genetic risk to naturally spawning populations.

Habitat degradation has resulted in the loss of an average of 83 percent of the potential production of the 42 steelhead populations assessed in Washington.

According to the draft report, the greatest losses of freshwater steelhead habitat have occurred on the Columbia River, where hydroelectric projects have blocked access to migrating fish. In contrast, the scientific assessment found

that 78-96 percent of the Puget Sound region's historical steelhead habitat remains accessible and that 96 percent of the area's historic steelhead populations remain viable.

"The science shows that we have some real opportunities to strengthen steelhead populations, even in the highly urbanized Puget Sound region," Koenings said. "This report will help inform management efforts in that region and throughout the state."


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