Fisheries managers in Washington have a perplexing problem on their hands: Too many hatchery steelhead are returning to the Grand Ronde River.
So many that anglers can't catch them all, and wildlife biologists worry the excess hatchery fish may spawn with wild fish and reduce the survival fitness of the protected wild run.
One potential solution is to reduce the number of juvenile steelhead the department releases at the Cottonwood Creek rearing facility near the Washington/Oregon state line.
That move would be unpopular with many anglers and guides who flock to southeastern Washington to fish the Grand Ronde and its mouth each year.
Glen Mendel, the district fisheries biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Dayton, said the department has had a longtime goal of releasing enough juvenile steelhead to get a return of 1,500 adults.
"We are at 250 percent of our goal on the Grand Ronde," he said. "That is great for fisheries. The other side of it is the potential Endangered Species Act conflict with these hatchery fish coming back. So we are going to have to balance those two."
In recent years, hatcheries and how they are managed have come under increasing scrutiny for the role they play in problems faced by wild salmon and steelhead runs. For years, hatcheries were seen as a way to protect fish runs.
But many wildlife biologists say the fish they produce compete with native fish for food and when wild and hatchery fish spawn, the result is a watered-down gene pool.
There are several ongoing processes looking at hatcheries and how they should be operated. A congressionally mandated process known as the Hatchery Scientific Review Group recently looked at hatchery practices and goals in the entire Columbia River basin and made a list of recommendations.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also reviewing the hatcheries in the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan, which have a goal of producing fish for anglers to compensate for the effect of dams.
At the same time, Washington is writing new steelhead management plans and will soon release draft recommendations.
Mendel said the high rate of return of steelhead released from the Cottonwood Creek facility has long been a problem.
Both Washington and Oregon reduced juvenile steelhead releases about eight years ago, he said. The goal was to reduce the number of adult steelhead returning and cut back on the number of steelhead that stray into places they are not supposed to be.
But at the same time juvenile releases were reduced, commercial gill net fishermen in the lower Columbia River were made to use nets with bigger openings and the number of days they were allowed to fish was scaled back.
That helped the steelhead runs.
"We thought we were going to be OK, but with the numbers of fish being harvested downriver being substantially reduced since then, we are still getting way too many adults back," Mendel said.