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Tribe and state at a loss why steelhead numbers dropping

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By Dennis Box, The Courier-Herald

The days of a steelhead hitting a fisherman's line and lunging out of the water have all but vanished in the South Puget Sound, and the reasons are a mystery to the scientist.

A survey by the Puyallup Indian Tribe in conjunction with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WFW) has reported an alarming drop in steelhead redds that nest in the tributaries of the Puyallup River system, including Fennel Creek in Bonney Lake, South Prairie Creek and Canyonfalls Creek.

At one time during the early 1980s, Fennel Creek had a significant number of redds during the spring spawning season, but during the last 10 to 15 years the numbers have dropped off the charts.

South Prairie Creek and Canyonfalls Creek have attracted high numbers of steelhead redds in the past, both wild and hatchery. Fish biologists from the tribe and WFW walk up stream and count the nests. Fish returns and survival are extrapolated from these surveys.

In 1986 there were 1,792 redds counted in South Prairie Creek; by 2001 the number had dropped to 279.

The redds in Fennel Creek have gone from the 50s in 1989 to virtually zero today.

"There are a lot of different ideas as to what's causing the survival problems, but no consensus," said Russ Ladley, resource manager for the Puyallup Indian Tribe. "There's not enough research at this point to tell us where the problem is. There's not enough data to say it is a fresh water or marine problem."

Steelhead are from the Oncorhynchus Mykiss family, which includes chinook and coho salmon and rainbow trout.

A steelhead begins life as a rainbow trout, spending its first year in fresh water, then migrates to the sea for the next year or two before returning to fresh water to spawn.

A three-salt steelhead is a three-year-old that has been out to sea for two years. These fish are the stuff of a steelhead fisherman's dreams.

"Steelhead survival was high throughout the Puget Sound," said John Long, district fish biologist for WFW. "There has been a serious drop inland all along the Puget Sound up to the Strait of Georgia. Once we're out of the Strait of Georgia things improve and on the (Washington) coast survival is good. It's a big puzzle to us. We simply don't know what's causing this."

According to Long, harvesting has been ruled out as the source of the problem.

"It is safe to say it not fishing," Long said. "Both the tribe and state have moved their fisheries to lower the impact on steelhead. It's more than a harvest issue. It appears to be something out in the Sound or beyond."

Coho salmon stocks are up in the White River. Fennel Creek is also a great producer of coho.

"Coho have a similar life cycle to steelhead," Long said. "So since steelhead numbers continue to fall, that points the finger out to the salt."

Adding to the puzzle,the state raises hatchery steelhead and releases them into the water system. These fish, like the wilds, do not return.

"They could be getting hit in a variety of ways, anywhere along the line when they come back," Long said. "One solution is to try releasing a larger, higher quality fish from the hatcheries. Generally at the hatchery they lower the density of fish in the pond giving more space and more water. This has improved survival in other areas."

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com

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