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Rivers in Washington may soon be divided into territory for either wild steelhead or hatchery steelhead. The hatchery steelhead are stuck in legal gridlock right now, after a lawsuit filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy argued they're bad for wild steelhead.
One biologist wants a compromise, and he's advocating for it underwater.
John McMillan works for Trout Unlimited. He's studied steelhead by snorkeling for more than 20 years across 1,500 miles of river, taking video of their behavior changes over time. He's noticed that sometimes tiny steelhead swoop under larger males and fertilize eggs.
"In some years, up to 50% of the steelhead who return to our streams may actually have a dad who was 5 inches long and never went to the ocean," McMillan said.
It's just one of the many challenges facing wild steelhead which are threatened around Puget Sound. Hatchery fish have been used to supplement their declining numbers.
The snorkel studies, however, have shown that hatchery fish can damage wild fish by out-competing them for food and territory.
In the long run, though, hacthery fish are often too domesticated for population viability.
"In other words they don't survive as well in nature as wild fish. It also makes them less resilient over time," MicMillan said.
It's one reason why hatchery steelhead are drowning in legal battles. The Department of Fish and Wildlife is not allowed to release winter run steelhead into rivers in Puget Sound.
The debate over hatchery value, and whether they should exist at all, has polarized anglers, scientists, tribes and wildlife officials.
On the Sol Duc near Forks, wild steelhead still return in the thousands. Other rivers may only get a couple hundred or less. It's one of the last waterways where wild steelhead are still digging in their fins while humans continue digging in their heels.
"We think the best approach is it doesn't have to be an all or nothing approach over the hatchery issue. We can come together as anglers and find a balance," McMillan said.
McMillan agrees with the state's plan to map rivers, potentially separating hatchery and wild steelhead. He thinks hatchery fish serve a purpose for fishermen - but need their own territory.
"It's OK to have a social need for something even if the biological science says it's not the best thing for wild fish."
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