by: Graham Johnson Updated:
A fight over Washington's state fish will bring big cuts to Puget Sound steelhead sport fishing.
The state is releasing far fewer hatchery steelhead this spring than in past years.
The state had planned to release nearly a million hatchery steelhead into rivers that flow to Puget Sound so anglers can catch them.
Instead, most will end up in fishing ponds as part of a settlement agreement with the Wild Fish Conservancy.
"We're trying to find out exactly what's going on with the hatchery steelhead," said Kurt Beardslee of the Conservancy.
Beardslee's group sued the state because of concerns about the impact hatchery steelhead have on wild ones, which are in dramatic decline.
Beardslee compares wild steelhead to wolves and hatchery fish to poodles.
Scientists have raised the alarm about hatchery steelhead competing with wild fish for food, habitat and mates.
Studies have shown interbreeding weakens wild fish genetics.
"Don't release fish if you don't know what the effects are," Beardslee said.
Jim Scott of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife acknowledges there used to be a problem with hatcheries, but says that's changed.
"Now when we look at them they meet the most stringent standards," Scott said.
Scott said hatchery steelhead no longer threaten wild fish recovery because the state conducts rigorous genetic testing and discourages interbreeding by releasing fewer fish.
In the past decade, the state has cut the number of hatchery steelhead released by more than half and it has reduced the locations of those releases from 27 to nine.
"What it indicates is that our understanding of the effects of hatchery programs has undergone a tremendous transformation in the last 20 years," Scott said.
The state says hatchery steelhead sport fishing generated up to ten million dollars of economic impact.
Mike Chamberlain of Ted's Sports Center says not releasing hatchery steelhead will be another hit to to the already-suffering local sport fishing business.
He says the winter steelhead season was once huge, but has been declining for years as fishing on Puget Sound rivers has been cut back.
"It's getting more and more difficult to pull the rabbit out of the hat each and every year," Chamberlain said.
The settlement agreement means hatchery steelhead will be released on only one local river, the Skykomish.
Although it was supposed to get one years ago, the state has never received a federal permit to release hatchery steelhead.
The agreement states the Conservancy will not sue the state over the next two and a half years, or until the feds approve the hatchery releases, whichever comes first.