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To Protect Steelhead, State Bans Hatchery Fish From Designated Wild 'Gene Banks'

Steelhead trout may be Washington’s official state fish, but they also make up some of the region's most vulnerable populations, first listed as threatened in the Columbia River basin in 1998. 

In an effort to reverse their decline, the state has designated three tributaries of the Columbia River as wild steelhead gene banks, which means they’re off-limits to hatchery fish.

Growing evidence from more than 20 years of research indicates hatchery steelhead and salmon have lower survival rates than their wild counterparts. And when they mix, wild stocks are diminished “through the effects of interbreeding and competition,” says Bryce Glaser with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“And so these gene banks are essentially just areas where we’re trying to set aside some spots where wild populations can be free. We’re trying to minimize the effects that those hatchery programs might have on those populations,” said Glaser.

As part of the steelhead management plan, the state will stop releasing hatchery-raised fish in three areas: the East Fork of the Lewis River and in the North Fork of the Toutle/Green River. The Wind River, which has not been stocked with steelhead since 1997, will remain off-limits to any future releases.

The state will allow fishermen to catch hatchery-raised fish in the protected zones for at least the next two years. Hatchery fish have a clipped adipose fin that distinguishes them.

“[These are] areas where we wanted to try and protect critical populations and give them the best chance to survive with all the threats that they face, and to minimize the hatchery impacts in some of those key areas,” said Glaser.

These so-called gene banks are part of a network of protected areas that the state will monitor with the aim of conserving and restoring wild steelhead. Puget Sound also has one: the Sol Duc River on the Olympic Peninsula. The plan is to add to the network until all of Washington’s 15 major population groups are included.

The focus in the next several months will be on establishing three more for Puget Sound as well as several on the Columbia River’s lower tributaries.

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