STEELHEAD – Disappointed Again!

September 12, 2022

I did it! I again sat through another disappointing, punishing three hours listening to the recording of the August 11, 2022, Ad-hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Committee meeting. As near as I could calculate there was approximately two hours and fifty minutes of input from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and no more than ten minutes from the actual Committee.

It appears WDFW has developed its basic plan for future protection and enhancement of wild steelhead returning to coastal rivers. Sports fishing seasons for steelhead trout returning to coastal rivers will most likely be established to coincide with and limited to, the projected return of hatchery fish in each specific river system. In addition, a scaling formula will be introduced that will drastically limit release of hatchery steelhead smolt to a small percentage of projected numbers of annual return of wild fish. It seems that WDFW has concluded that hatchery fish are the reason for the continual downturn in numbers of wild fish returns that has occurred annually since 1974, in that they are genetically inferior to wild fish and therefore degrade survival rate. The intent of both these initiatives is to minimize the potential intermix of hatchery and wild fish on the spawning beds, and essentially preclude sports fishing for wild steelhead. Unfortunate! Neither of these initiatives will provide any positive impact – and may in fact exacerbate the problem.

1. Hatchery Steelhead are 99.999999% genetically identical to wild steelhead. There are, however, Epigenetic factors for consideration. Epigenetics is the study of how behaviors and environment can cause changes that effect the way genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change a DNA sequence, but they can change how a body reads a DNA sequence.

No doubt at all that hatchery-raised smolt lack the survival traits of wild steelhead smolt. They have not had to forage for food, nor have they faced predation. Once entering a river system these challenges exist immediately. Hatchery smolt that are unable to overcome the epigenetics created in the hatchery environment succumb to either starvation or predation. I t may be possible that hatchery smolt actually enhance the survival rate of wild smolt by providing a sort of “buffer zone”. The important point is that those hatchery smolt that do survive have effectively reversed the hatchery-induced epigenetic changes – and are now no different than wild steelhead.

2. WDFW once operated 24 Hatcheries. Currently that number stands at six. It is interesting that since elimination of 18 hatcheries on 18 rivers, it appears not one of those rivers has seen an increase in numbers of returning wild steelhead. Every one of those rivers has continued to see a decline.

3. Is it possible that changes could be introduced in hatchery methodology that would expose smolt to a more natural experience, negating the undesirable epigenetic changes?

4. There is no valid reason for restricting seasons to protect wild steelhead from encounters. The 10 to 15% mortality rate claimed by WDFW as a result of catch and release has no basis in fact. I have drifted the coastal rivers for over 50 years. In all those years I never witnessed a dying or dead steelhead. Do they just dematerialize?

I again return to where I started this campaign. If there is to be any hope of restoring this magnificent resource – THE KILLING MUST STOP. The annual commercial harvest of 50 to 80% since 1974 cannot continue.

WDFW’s plan of dictating the agenda, manipulating, and controlling the discussion, and then ultimately claim public support from the Ad-Hoc Committee – seems to be progressing without contest. The email addresses for the Ad-Hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group members are published on the WDFW website. It would be extremely helpful if you would politely ask each member to not let this opportunity to initiate real change slip by the wayside….! Again, if our steelhead are to be saved – THE KILLING MUST STOP!

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Jerry Effenberger, Concerned Citizen