WDFW drafts rules to enforce fish passage statewide

(CLAUDIA YAW/Centralia Chronicle)

Rules drafted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to address the more than 19,000 barriers to fish passage across the state were discussed in a public meeting Thursday.

The hope is that WDFW’s drafted codes will help implement existing state laws that regulate fish passage. The effort was prompted by a 2018 state report identifying lack of prey as a major threat to the Southern resident killer whales. One main impact of the drafted codes, said Fish Passage Policy and Rules Coordinator Gabrielle Stilwater, is that they will apply retroactively, implicating existing structures and proposed structures.

Eighty-four percent of barriers to fish passage are culverts, many of which have issues related to waterfall-like drops, inadequate water depth, high velocity, sediment issues, gates and deterioration, according to WDFW. The number of barriers grows weekly as more are discovered. And with climate change increasing annual rainfall, banks are expected to widen and subsequently make even more culverts inadequate for fish passage, according to WDFW.

Washington state is under a court order to replace culverts that block fish migration, which were ruled as infringing on Washington tribes’ treaty rights to fishing. Locally, the requirements have been characterized by county officials as a financial burden — something WDFW acknowledged in their presentation to the public on Thursday.

“We recognize that addressing culverts is a pretty big task, and we wanna make sure that we’re prioritizing things correctly, and we wanna make sure that individuals are doing the best that we can,” Stilwater said. “So if we’ve got something that isn’t a fish passage barrier, we’ll leave it alone.”

WDFW officials also said that the new codes will be enforced largely through education and voluntary compliance. While the agency has the ability to pursue civil action or public nuisance laws, or even place a lien on unwilling property owners, it has never come to that point. WDFW will also not be able to issue monetary fines unless granted approval by the state Legislature.

In addressing structures blocking fish passage, Stilwater told listeners that she would like to see WDFW change how it analyzes whether a stream is passable by fish. Currently, swimmability is based on whether a “weak swimming and leaping” 6-inch trout could pass a waterway with a surface drop or high velocity. An adult Chinook salmon is used to gauge adequate water depth.

But Stilwater said the agency is looking toward analyzing “all life stages” not only of salmonids, but all relevant species. 

Under the drafted rules, if a fish passage is determined impractical for fish to cross, parties may “consider hatchery production in lieu of providing passage.”  But officials also said they would like to see the term “impractical” narrowed, which may allow for more problem solving.

WDFW’s drafted rules can be found here: https://wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2021-02/fishpassagedraftrulelanguage_v1.pdf

Public comment can still be submitted via email to fishpassagerules@dfw.wa.gov