Thursday, February 28, 2013

ESA listings and catch and release, the future of Puget Sound steelhead.

The following piece is Osprey Chair Will Atlas' column from our January 2013 issue. To subscribe to the osprey and receive your PDF copy of the issue visit our website at

This year for the fourth consecutive winter, the Skagit River, one of Washington’s most storied steelhead rivers will be closed to angling at the end of January. To the south the Stillaguamish, and Skykomish, both equally steeped in angling tradition have been closed during the peak months of the wild winter steelhead run since 2001. These closures are the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s understandable reaction to two decades of depressed steelhead abundance in Puget Sound, the product of more than a century of destructive overharvest, habitat destruction, hatchery supplementation and a turn for the worse in marine survival for steelhead entering the Georgia Basin. Like so many advocates for wild fish, my passion for their conservation began with angling. This evolution, from catch and release angler to tireless advocate was accelerated dramatically by many days spent fishing for, and occasionally catching wild steelhead on my home rivers in Puget Sound. And while I recognize the need to do everything in our power to recover steelhead in Puget Sound, I question the efficacy of closing catch and release fisheries, particularly when viewed in isolation as means of recovering wild steelhead stocks.

In their effort to reduce the risk of extinction within the Puget Sound ESU, NOAA and WDFW have opted to close the steelhead rivers of Puget Sound 3-4 months before the historic end of these fisheries. While their intentions are admirable, these closures are inconsistent with and far more severe than regulations in other areas where steelhead have been listed under the ESA. Take for instance the Lower Columbia and Willamette, there the vast majority of streams remain open to catch and release fishing until the end of March. On the many tributaries of the Snake steelhead angling remains open for most of the year and anglers may catch ESA listed steelhead anytime from August to March and on the Upper Columbia, an ESU where steelhead were only recently down-listed from Endangered to Threatened we have seen seasons lasting anywhere from 2 to 7 months during the last 4 years.

Given this disparity you might expect the situation in Puget Sound to be much more dire than in those areas currently open to sport fishing, however this is far from the case. While for the most part wild steelhead abundance remains depressed below escapement goals in Puget Sound, the Skagit was at or near its escapement goal of 6000 fish each of the last two seasons. Meanwhile, all of the aforementioned ESUs where fisheries impacting wild steelhead currently occur annually remain depressed below their ESA targeted recovery goals as well. Even more baffling is the inconsistency within Puget Sound. While steelhead fisheries remain closed entirely throughout the winter months, anglers are allowed to harvest ESA listed wild Chinook in parts of Puget Sound, and marine fisheries with much higher catch and release mortality are kept open 9 months of the year. The management of these Chinook fisheries is the result of harvest rates that have been agreed upon by both NOAA and WDFW, meanwhile we have lost our fisheries for wild winter steelhead almost entirely, depriving residents of Puget Sound of the opportunity to enjoy these iconic fish and starving economically depressed riverside communities of three months of economic activity generated by these once popular fisheries. .

The agencies have always fallen back on the argument that these populations may not meet their escapement goal, and thus allowing any fish to be killed, even incidentally by catch and release fisherman is not biologically defensible. This argument holds some water and their concern with maintaining abundance of ESA listed steelhead is warranted. However, as we have learned from steelhead monitoring projects in watersheds without angling such as Snow Creek in Puget Sound and the Keogh River on Vancouver Island, marine survival is above all else responsible for year to year fluctuations in adult population sizes. Indeed the “carrying capacity” of a watershed, the level of adult abundance often used as an escapement goal actually varies with changes in marine survival and in a large river such as the Skagit, Skykomish, Nooksack or Stillaguamish, catch and release angling would have a negligible impact on the trajectory of steelhead populations. Throw in the fact that the available data and run forecasts of steelhead abundance in Puget Sound ranges from poor and unreliable to non-existent and it is as though managers have been left to manage steelhead populations with a blindfold on.

As anglers and advocates in the 21st century it is incumbent upon us to put stewardship and conservation at the forefront, and if catch and release sport fisheries do indeed jeopardize the persistence of a population they should be closed. But the reality is, on some of the larger populations of steelhead in Puget Sound, catch and release managed under selective regulations would have a negligible impact on wild populations of steelhead while still allowing 3 months of angling opportunity a core part of WDFWs mission. This lost opportunity deprives depressed communities of economic opportunities and alienates one of the department’s core constituencies, steelhead anglers. State agencies are understandably under duress and in many instances managers are doing the best they can with limit data and resources. However, we need to ask more of WDFW. As our state fisheries management agency they must be advocates for the recovery of wild fish but also for sport fisheries. In a changing and evermore crowded world WDFW needs to recognize the importance and utility of catch and release fisheries as a means of providing angling opportunity while minimizing impacts on fragile populations of steelhead. We won’t see a steelhead fishery on the Skagit this winter but in starting this conversation now with WDFW we can work together with the state to ensure that we are providing opportunities while simultaneously working towards recovery of listed stocks.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Coming Fall 2013: Wild Reverance, the Plight of the American Steelhead

Shane Anderson, an independent film maker contacted us recently with a trailer for his upcoming documentary film on plight of wild steelhead in the US. The film looks to be one of the most comprehensive and well researched efforts to document the state of wild steelhead in the Western United States and features interviews with numerous scientists, conservationists and wild fish advocates united in the goal of recovering wild steelhead. We are eagerly awaiting an opportunity to see the finished product, but the trailer will have to do for now. Check it out...

Wild Reverence"The Plight of the American Wild Steelhead" Film Trailer from North Fork Studios on Vimeo.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Freeing the White Salmon River

Check out this great episode of OPB's Oregon Field Guide on the epic white salmon dam removal project. The episode was shot by filmmaker Andy Maser who has been keeping us updated on the dam removal at his blog

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Help Protect the Chetco River from Suction Dredge Mining

The Chetco River is among southern Oregon's crowned jewels when it comes to producing wild chinook and winter steelhead. Recently however, the rising price of gold and increased interest in suction dredge mining has posed a major threat to the habitat in the Chetco. Thanks to an outdated law written in the late 19th century which gives mining precedence over other values there is a need for action at the Federal level. American Rivers has put together a petition asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to suspend all mining on the Chetco for 5 years to give state and federal legislators time to  put permanent protections in place for the Chetco.

Please take 30 seconds to sign the petition and add your voice to the growing chorus of citizens asking our government to put the outstanding natural values of the Chetco River first:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

BC Statistics Show Value of Sport Fisheries

This one came across the wire at Osprey HQ from our friends at the Wild Fish Conservancy.

According to an economic review by BC Stats, British Columbia's legendary sport fisheries are worth slightly more to the province's GDP (approximately $325 million dollars), than commercial fishing, aquaculture, and fish processing combined. While sport fishing has long been an engine of economic activity in BC, the industry is all to often dismissed by policy makers in favor of other, often unsustainable economic activities such as logging, mining, and open net pen aquaculture.

The Skeena River is among the most important salmon and steelhead fisheries in the province, and on its own brings millions of dollars into BCs economy. However, bycatch of steelhead and other non-target species in commercial fisheries openings for sockeye on the lower river have raised concerns over the impact of the non-selective commercial fishery on the regions lucrative sport fishery. The report is yet more evidence in favor of reducing the impact of commercial fisheries and other industries on populations of wild fish.

More info:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Take Action: ODFW Looking to Expand Wild Steelhead Harvest

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is in the midst of developing a new management plan for Oregon's coastal rivers. Among the more controversial provisions is ODFW's plan to open wild steelhead retention in several rivers that are among the last best wild steelhead producing watersheds on the coast. Among the rivers that would be opened to harvesting wild steelhead are the Nehalem, Trask, Big Elk Creek in the Yaquina watershed, Lake Creek in the Siuslaw watershed, the Salmon, the Lower and Middle Umpqua River, SF Coos, NF Coquille and EF Coquille. This combined with ODFWs focus on harvest opportunities supported by hatcheries, and their increasing reliance on wild broodstock programs that rob productivity from wild steelhead populations to provide harvest opportunity poses a major threat to the future of wild steelhead on the Oregon Coast.

These watersheds represent a few of the best remaining refuges for wild steelhead on the Oregon Coast and ODFW's insistence on allowing anglers to harvest wild steelhead in these places is extremely short sighted.

Please take a few minutes to call or email ODFW's Conservation and Recovery Assistant Program Manager Tom Stahl and voice your opinion against the harvest of wild steelhead in Oregon. or          

503-947-6219      .

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Osprey vol. 74

The latest issue of The Osprey is coming to a mailbox or fly shop near you. Subscribe today to support our work and get vol. 74 sent to your email inbox.

In this issue:

  • Wind and Hood River Steelhead and the Impacts of Hatcheries - by Bill McMillan
  • Chairs Column: Is Future for Catch and Release Fisheries in Puget Sound? - by Will Atlas
  • Cohen Commissions Findings on Fraser Sockeye - by Craig Orr and Stan Proboszczc
  • The Science of Fraser Sockeye; Factors into the Decline - by Brendan Connors and Doug Braun
  • The Miraculous Recovery of Okanagan Sockeye Without Hatcheries - by Tom Kahler
We are thrilled about the line up in this issue, however we can't do it without your support. Check out our website and subscribe online to receive The Osprey: Conservation Journal of Wild Salmonids.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

BC's Run of River Hydro Not Being Held Accountable

A recent government audit of environmental infractions by 16 run-of-river hydro projects in Southern BC found that since 2010 at least 749 environmental violations had been committed by these companies, and shockingly none of them have resulted in fines or sanctions. These violations typically result from dewatering of rivers below minimum flow guidelines, or ramping flows up or down too quickly, which can lead to stranding of fish or dewatering of redds. While the government has beefed up monitoring, they have declined to levy fines or penalties against companies whose operations violate environmental standards, shifting the burden of corporate irresponsibility or negligence onto the BC public and ultimately on the the rivers and fish where run of river hydro power has been developed.

The bottom line is, these companies are using a public resource, and as such they should be held to account for their actions. If they are having trouble with infractions, enacting steep fines for infractions would serve as a valuable economic lesson in how not to operate with a public resource. Instead BCs Liberal government has chosen to coddle the industry, handing over BCs river for private power development, apparently with few strings attached. Lets hope the next election cylce in BC can bring an end to the run of river insanity, and ensure that any future development of run of river hydropower is done with regulations in place that penalize irresponsible companies and reward those who understand and respect one of BCs most vital public resources, its rivers.

More information in the Globe and Mail:

Monday, February 4, 2013

Action Needed: Tell the Fish and Wildlife Commission to Adopt Rule Changes to Reduce Exploitation Rates and Improve Fisheries

In January we asked our readers to submit comments on several rule change proposals we submitted this cycle. The majority of these rule proposals were designed to limit overall exploitation rates on wild steelhead while simultaneously improving the quality of fisheries throughout the state. Hopefully many of you had a chance to submit comments.

This Friday, February 8th at 2:10 PM the Fish and Wildlife Commission will be hearing public testimony on all of the rule changes proposed this round. While submitting comments online is helpful, turning out to a commission meeting is a surefire way to get the attention of WDFW.

The meeting will be held in Olympia at the State Natural Resources Building at

1111 Washington St SE
Olympia WA 98501
First Floor, Room 172

We understand that turning out on a Friday is difficult for many of you, but if you can please turn out and testify on behalf of wild steelhead, and the suite of rule changes we have asked the state to adopt.

Here's a synopsis of those rule changes:


The Osprey