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Washington Trout: Preserve, Protect, Restore
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A letter from the Director:

Dear wild fish advocates,

I’m sure you’ve received countless letters asking you to contribute to this or that worthy cause. To be sure, there are many worthy causes, and many reasons to support one over another, depending on your values and persuasions. I’m writing because you’ve shown you value the gifts of nature, and that you care enough about the world we pass on to future generations that you’ll take the time to read this letter.

Even for someone who never fishes, there is a compelling magic to the interplay of wild fish and their environment. The irresistible pull of home streams to spawning salmon, the liquid music of sparkling, cascading water, or the quiet dignity of an eagle moving upriver are all part of the mysterious delight brought to us by wild fish and the waters that hold them.

Whether you like to catch wild fish, pursue them for the experience, watch them move through the currents and torrents, or just feel better knowing that wild trout and salmon are a precious, irreplaceable piece of the natural world, you should know that their time is running out. And while many organizations and agencies debate what should be done and how we should do it, the most important fact is that we are losing the battle to preserve a place for wild trout and salmon.

Wild fish have been free-falling off the cliff of extinction ever since “civilized” people began exploiting them and despoiling their habitats some 130 years ago. Consider for a moment the graph below, which tells the story of the plight of our wild trout and salmon.

It is pretty depressing, you have to admit. The collected research of top fisheries biologists tells us that wild trout and salmon populations are at their lowest levels in 10,000 years, or since the ebb of the last ice age, and that this decline coincides with the relatively recent coming of western civilization.

For the native people and the first explorers of the Pacific Northwest, the numbers of spawning wild salmon, choking rivers and streams, seemed beyond count, and beyond any impact through harvest. Native people developed entire cultures around the rich runs of returning salmon, cultures that recognized the spiritual and mystical qualities of wild fish. The first towns and cities of the Pacific Northwest coast were built on the easy harvest of plentiful salmon, as well as by logging the vast forests growing alongside rivers and streams. Darting wild trout and char were also part of the richness that was.

But what have we done in return for the riches that wild trout and salmon have brought us? We have not been good neighbors; instead we have:

• Dammed their streams, turning swift rivers into still lakes and eliminating spawning areas.

• Logged off the trees that provided stream habitat, helped regulate runoff and held back soils.

• Polluted their waters with wastes, toxic chemicals, silt and sediment; we have taken away oxygen, raised temperatures and, in general, made water uninhabitable to them.

• Dumped billions of hatchery fish on them, to compete for space and food and alter the genetics of wild fish that evolved over the millennia in adapting to specific streams and rivers.

• Converted huge amounts of watersheds to impermeable asphalt, concrete and roof-tops, drastically altering the amount of precipitation held in the ground, altering drainage patterns and increasing the severity of floods.

• Blocked off passage upstream through road construction, thoughtlessly placed culverts, dams and locks without adequate passage structures and water diversions.

• Harvested them by the billions, eating some, selling some, converting some to pet food and, overall, treated them as a cheap, inexhaustible commodity.

Over a century of mismanagement and abuse of wild salmon and trout has, not surprisingly, brought us to a sorry crossroads. A 1991 study of 214 native salmon and steelhead stocks from Washington to California found that 159 were at a moderate to high risk of extinction. Hatchery programs have caused interbreeding with 104 of these stocks. Over 100 distinct salmon stocks are already extinct! In Washington State, 37 wild steelhead stocks, 47 wild salmon stocks, and 10 wild sea-run cutthroat stocks are in trouble. To anyone who cares, there is obviously a decades-old crisis that will soon mean the end of many wild salmon and trout.

Millions upon millions of dollars, and dozens of groups and agencies, have been thrown against the “salmon problem.” So why is it still a problem? The truth is that our attempts at solutions and cooperation, so far, have all fallen short.

Hatcheries were used early on to replace wild fish runs destroyed by various land uses and overharvest. Not merely expensive, short-term fixes, hatcheries often help prevent wild fish recovery, and are fraught with problems that will eventually cause their undoing. By destroying or blocking habitat, polluting waters, creating massive competition with wild fish and toying with complicated genetics, hatcheries create more problems than solutions.

Harvest of mixed wild and hatchery stocks and overharvest resulting from limits based on economics instead of biology, are eliminating wild fish. Both commercial and “sports” (recreational) fishing remove wild fish from declining populations inadvertently or otherwise. Harvest of wild fish is largely based on politics, treaty rights, annual agreements, and profit motives, none of which necessarily reflects much concern for wild trout and salmon biology.

Habitat used by wild fish, both at sea and in fresh water, is in bad shape and is getting worse all the time. Passage blocked by dams, culverts and dewatering, channels choked by sediment, pollution from all sources, lack of cover from removing trees and shrubs, conversion of vegetation to impermeable surfaces, or just plain abuse through misuse and neglect all add up to the loss of a functional home for wild fish.

Hatcheries, harvest and habitat are all keys in solving the “salmon problem.” But it will take much more than doing things a little differently. Values must change, and before that, leadership must step forward to exemplify a willingness to view the entire set of problems and make changes where necessary. But where will this leadership come from? The next Governor? The President? The Legislature or Congress? Probably none of these, if history is any guide. The leadership will come from people like you and me, and it has already started. I’m talking about Washington Trout!

There Is Good News!

1. Start with ecosystems.

Salmon and trout are part of ecosystems. At every point in their life cycle, wild fish are part of a rich fabric of living things, all of which evolved together and depend upon one another. Solving the “salmon problem” and recovering wild fish means restoring the way ecosystems work. We can never re-create the pristine quality of our watersheds and seas as they existed 150 years ago, but we can restore habitats and reduce damage being done to wild fish populations.

2. Make habitats functional.

The first two steps towards recovering wild trout and salmon are to make sure their habitats are protected, and then to make sure those habitats are connected. Washington Trout is making this happen by working in the field to correctly identify stream reaches that fish use, evaluating and replacing culverts that block fish passage, and restoring stream bottoms and banks. Washington Trout is also working to improve laws and policies to make sure habitats are protected and connected.

3. Make major changes.

Wholesale changes, not tweaking at the edges, are needed to recover wild fish. Pinning hopes on pretty brochures, thick technical reports and battles to avoid change will only cost us wild trout and salmon. We can’t afford to talk around the problem while wild fish go extinct. The solutions lie in putting all the parts of the problem (hatcheries, harvest and habitat) on the table, bringing in all the players (commercial and sport fishers, the tribes, agencies, property owners and everyone else involved), and working out major steps to solve the “salmon problem.” Only Washington Trout is leading the charge to make this happen.

And where do you come in?...

Washington Trout needs your support as a member. Your membership does more than just help us along; it makes you part of the solution to the “salmon problem,” and entitles you to receive our information-packed newsletter, the Washington Trout Report. Giving a Washington Trout gift membership to a friend, reading our newsletter and telling others about our organization’s actions will help raise the public awareness needed to make recovery of wild trout and salmon a reality!

Washington Trout is unique. As you know, we’re not a fishing group. We’re not a stuffy bunch of elitists or a ragged band of fanatics. We are dedicated professionals who believe in bringing the best available science and a holistic approach to the process of recovering wild fish.

Washington Trout is a statewide, nonprofit organization, not affiliated with any national group. We are different from almost any other group that talks about salmon and trout, because we work only for the recovery of wild fish. We not only work with laws and policies, but also with backhoes and box culverts. We are a licensed and bonded contractor within Washington State, so we can perform heavy reconstruction work at the lowest cost possible.

With your help, wild trout and salmon will be recovered. Without your help, we can do only so much. People brought wild fish to this crossroads, and the commitment of other people can reverse that trend. But for wild trout and salmon, time is running out!

Membership dollars for Washington Trout go to fund useful programs and essential projects all over the state that would be simply unavailable without those funds.

Thank you in advance for helping recover our dwindling stocks of wild trout and salmon. Without people like you, we couldn’t do what we do.


Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director