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Cowlitz River

Frank Adams of Orting, Wash., holds a winter steelhead caught near the trout hatchery on the Cowlitz River. Washington already has developed a late-returning Cowlitz-origin run on the stream.

Big changes are coming in the next five years to the Washougal, Kalama and Coweeman rivers — plus Salmon and Rock creeks — as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife responds to new federal requirements regarding hatchery-origin winter steelhead.

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a biological opinion in January calling for an end to the release of Chambers Creek-stock winter steelhead in the five Southwest Washington streams. Rock Creek is a small tributary of the Columbia in Skamania County.

The Chambers Creek stock of winter steelhead originated in Puget Sound and was introduced into the Columbia Basin in the 1950s. The stock returns early in the winter (November-January).

This month, the Department of Fish and Wildlife will release the last of about 200,000 Chambers Creek winter steelhead into the five streams.

“The biological opinion concluded that eliminating that stock would help protect the genetic integrity of wild steelhead populations,’’ said Eric Kinne, hatchery division manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We are committed to recovering wild salmon and steelhead populations, while providing sustainable fishing opportunities for anglers in the Columbia River Basin and throughout the state.’’

Adults from the Chambers Creek stock will return during the next three winters.

In 2018, the agency will replace those steelhead with young fish from local stocks.

The department plans the following:

Release a total of 135,000 Kalama-origin late winter steelhead into the Kalama River annually. That is an increase of 45,000 fish. Over the past two decades, the department has developed a late-returning hatchery stock of winter steelhead from fish originating in the Kalama River. Those steelhead return primarily in February, March and April.

The department plans to develop an early-timed run from local fish, but that will take time.

Release winter steelhead from Eagle Creek Hatchery on the Clackamas River in Oregon as a near-term replacement in the Washougal and Coweeman rivers, plus Rock Creek.

Release Kalama late-stock winter steelhead into Salmon Creek in Clark County.

Kinne said the plan for replacing the Chambers Creek fish will increase annual smolt plants by 50 percent but efforts to develop an early-timed run likely will take a decade or longer.

“Anglers will definitely miss that early winter steelhead fishery until we can establish an early run using local stocks,” Kinne said.

Plans also call for using Kalama-origin summer steelhead in the Kalama River, instead of Skamania stock summer steelhead, which originate from the Washougal River watershed.

Change is also coming to hatchery salmon released as a result of the federal biological opinion. The changes will be phased in through 2022.

The next phase focuses on salmon hatcheries in the Columbia River basin, establishing new requirements on the type, number and location of salmon released by hatcheries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho funded under the 1938 Mitchell Act.

A provision of the biological opinion calls for reducing releases of tule fall chinook in Washington by 5.4 million young fish, partly to offset higher fish production in Oregon. Other requirements include installation of six new weirs — at a cost of more than $1 million — along with increased monitoring.

The Mitchell Act was intended to compensate the Northwest states for impacts to salmon runs resulting from dams, water diversions, pollution and logging in the Columbia River basin. Under the new biological opinion, hatchery operations that do not comply with the new regulations risk losing federal funding.

Kelly Cunningham, deputy assistant director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish program, said the changes envisioned under the new biological opinion require additional money.

“With additional support, we will not be able to achieve the goals set by NOAA Fisheries, and will be forced to reduce hatchery releases or halt production at some hatcheries altogether,’’ Cunningham said.

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