Wild steelhead: Conservation is key

Guest column

As we head into the holidays and the autumn rains give way to winter’s snow, once again wild, winter-run steelhead begin nosing into their natal streams. Unfortunately, dwindling numbers of these remarkable fish, some weighing more than 20 pounds, are returning to spawn while this state’s management agency considers retaining a strategy that has helped contribute to their decline.

Like salmon, steelhead are anadromous, meaning they are born in fresh water but go to sea to feed and grow before returning to their home river to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after spawning and often return to spawn a second and even third time.

Wild steelhead share the waters with hatchery-raised steelhead, introduced to provide harvestable numbers of steelhead for both tribal net fisheries and sports fishers. Hatchery fish are identifiable by a clipped adipose fin on their backs. As wild and hatchery fish head upriver, both are targeted by anglers. The majority of hatchery fish return from December through January and wild fish enter the region’s rivers from December through April.

For years the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has managed wild steelhead using a model called Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). Under MSY, fish that survive to spawn in excess of the minimum needed to ensure survival of the species are targeted for harvest. Failure to harvest excess fish is called wastage.

Of course, the effectiveness of this formula depends on the department’s ability to predict escapement. Yet, escapement is influenced by such factors as variations in ocean conditions, river flooding and changes in freshwater habitat – factors that cannot be accurately reflected in the MSY formula. The result is that wild stocks are being managed to maximize harvest and not to maximize the health of the species. Under this plan, the runs suffer.

The current WDFW policy allows harvest of wild steelhead on rivers the agency considers to have healthy runs. Until the early 1980s, there were no restrictions on killing wild steelhead in Washington rivers. Since then, through a combination of ocean condition cycles, habitat degradation and the accumulated effects of harvest, steelhead runs in the state have fallen on hard times.

In 1999-2000, 35 rivers were considered to have runs healthy enough to allow harvest. Currently, only 16 rivers in the state meet this designation. Faced with steep declines in wild steelhead escapements last November, the WDFW imposed emergency closures on 19 area rivers. According to WDFW biologists, poor ocean conditions caused escapement levels to drop off the table. It is expected that these closures will remain in effect for the foreseeable future.

Despite claims to the contrary, MSY is not working and the health of wild steelhead runs continue to deteriorate. An example of this is the condition of runs in the rivers of North Puget Sound. For many years, from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28, it was legal to catch and kill wild steelhead on the Skagit, Sauk, Stillaguamish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie and Skykomish rivers.

It was determined these rivers had healthy stocks of wild fish and as such, would support the harvest of excess fish. During the 1998-99 steelhead season, approximately 1,000 wild fish were legally harvested in the Snohomish River system. Two years later, the WDFW announced an emergency steelhead closure of these rivers because of astonishingly low estimates of returning fish.

Department data shows an estimated Snohomish River escapement of only 3,089 fish last spring. That number is far below the 80 percent of minimum escapement levels needed for spawning to sustain the run. The closures ended not only the catch-and-kill seasons, but also the popular catch-and-release spring fisheries. The state determined the danger to these runs was so severe they could not withstand even the incidental mortality from a catch-and-release season.

While poor ocean conditions probably are responsible for much of the decline, previous harvest levels have doubtlessly contributed to the current poor health of the runs. How could this happen if our fisheries are being managed with the future of the fish in mind?

I believe it is time to move beyond the arrogant belief that we can do a better job of managing fisheries through harvest than nature has done and can do if left alone.

This past summer, a state survey of fishing-license holders showed 61 percent favored mandatory release of all wild steelhead. This is a supermajority and demonstrates that anglers believe wild steelhead harvest should stop and that the fish should be put first, that we can’t continue to kill our catch without the resource suffering.

On Sept. 22, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission sponsored a symposium on steelhead management that featured expert panelists from British Columbia, Oregon, Idaho and California. British Columbia data showed that the province’s switch to catch-and-release fisheries resulted in increased numbers of wild fish in the rivers and increased fishing opportunities for anglers. Testimony from the other states echoed these findings.

Washington stood alone in supporting continued wild steelhead kill seasons. When will we learn from our neighbors and stop allowing the killing of these magnificent gamefish?

Now is the time for Washington to move away from an attitude of unlimited resources and toward one of conserving the gifts given us by nature. It is time to realize that more fish in a river is a measure of successful stewardship and not wastage. Finally, it is time to join the rest of the Northwest and adopt management strategies designed to save wild fish rather than kill them.

On Dec. 7 and 8, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will take public testimony in Vancouver, Wash., on a proposal to eliminate the sport harvest of all wild steelhead. Public input is encouraged.

Written comments may be submitted during the Dec. 7 commission meeting, or mailed before the meeting to Evan Jacoby, WDFW Rules Coordinator, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia, WA 98501-1091, or e-mailed to Jacoby at jacobesj@dfw.wa.gov.

Duggan Harman is the board president of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, a group dedicated to increasing the return of wild steelhead in the rivers and waters of the Pacific Northwest.