The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) announced last week that the Nooksack River is closed to fishing. The reason: to allow the hatchery program in the watershed to get enough fish for their egg take goal. The river has been closed to protect hatchery fish. Unfortunately this occurrence has become commonplace over the last decade as hatchery programs in Puget Sound (and around the state for that matter) have failed to produce even enough returning fish to support their own existence. These programs cost state taxpayers millions of dollars per year, and are counterproductive to the goal of recovering ESA listed wild steelhead in the region. So why is WDFW continuing to run these programs?
Because the hatchery programs are an entrenched and broken part of the department, and leadership can see no other way of providing "opportunity". At WDFW the first two tenants of the departmental mission are to 1.) conserve and protect native fish and wildlife and 2.) provide sustainable fishing and hunting. The department's apparent answer to their mission of conserving fish and providing sustainable fishing? Spending millions of dollars on hatcheries that are so ineffective that they force fishing closures to protect the fish returning fish as broodstock, and failing egregiously to provide opportunity in Puget Sound and around the state because of a lack of vision on how to protect wild fish while providing fishing opportunities. Hatchery populations are tanking all over the region, while on the Skagit and other North Puget Sound rivers the last two years have seen some of the best returns of wild steelhead in decades. These rivers could have easily supported catch and release fisheries through the end of April with negligible impacts on steelhead populations. Instead they were closed to fishing.
The Nooksack, like every other river in Puget Sound will close on January 31st this year, eliminating opportunity for three months of catch and release angling for wild steelhead. While steelhead populations are undeniably depressed in these rivers, the state could and should where possible manage these rivers to support opportunities for anglers to fish, and do so in ways that minimize impacts on ESA listed populations to the greatest extent possible. This would hardly require a precedent setting battle with NOAA. Steelhead are listed in the majority of rivers in the Lower 48, but when state management agencies make providing catch and release opportunities a priority NOAA has by and large gone along with it, and fishing is open throughout the entire steelhead season in most areas in Oregon, Idaho, and Northern California despite listed populations. NOAA does this because they know that for the most part these fisheries have very little impact on population trajectories and they're extremely popular with anglers, supporting millions of dollars of economic activity around our region every year.
Even in Puget Sound WDFW has gone to battle to protect sport fisheries for ESA listed chinook, getting NOAA to agree on "recovery harvest rates". While these fisheries are less biologically defensible they illustrate a key point, the ESA does not necessarily guarantee a perpetual end to fishing opportunity as we've seen in Puget Sound. Rather, it compels state managers to defend the decisions they make with some minimal level of biological justification. WDFW has been more than willing to do this for expensive, failing hatchery programs, so why not for catch and release fisheries for wild steelhead which are ostensibly free for the state?
It's time for WDFW to think differently and change their priorities when it comes to steelhead management. The hatchery paradigm has failed so miserably over the past two decades that any rational observer will agree that there really isn't another defensible choice. The state could improve monitoring, enforcement and creel surveys at a fraction of the cost of the current hatchery operations, With this information and enforcement regime in place, WDFW could sustainably manage catch and release fishing in the region, setting thresholds for impacts on wild populations, and conducting in season management accordingly.
So while we're sitting at home this winter not fishing the rivers that we've known and loved for decades, remember that there is a different way forward for WDFW and our state. But until we emphasize the protection of wild fish and the fisheries they can support we'll continue to squander millions of dollars a year all in the name of perpetuating a broken system of hatcheries and river closures.
See the WDFW press release here: