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 http://www.ospreysteelhead.org/subscribe.htm
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.