As I write this, we are deep in the heart of winter steelhead season. Snow levels have crept down in elevation and river gauges resemble roller coasters. One thing is now certain: We finally have water. After a summer of lethal river temperatures and wildfires, is it ok to complain about blown-out or frozen rivers? Probably not.
If we learned one lesson from last summer it was the need to redouble our efforts to restore and protect wild steelhead.
And we are continuing down that path. This winter we will see volunteers planting trees, monitoring stream temps, throwing fundraisers, counting redds, conducting snorkel surveys and taking action for crucial policy changes, all in the name of wild steelhead conservation.
We do this because we are steelheaders -- because opportunity means getting out there on a beautiful river and, if the fishing gods are generous, hooking into a silver bullet.
I wish you good fortune in your winter steelheading, and encourage you to dedicate that same level of passion and action to wild steelhead conservation.
Commit yourself to get involved or donate. Go to a local Trout Unlimited meeting and ask how you can help with your local river. You can find it here. Forward this newsletter to friends and encourage them to sign the Credo. Donate $40 or more and get a Wild Steelheaders United hat. Donate here.
Volunteer for an Angler Science project on Oregon’s Siletz, Smith and Coquille Rivers or on the Hoh or Skagit in Washington. Learn More.
The case for a portfolio of wild-only and hatchery steelhead rivers in Puget Sound
What does “fishing opportunity” mean to steelhead anglers?
The answer depends on who you ask.
For some, opportunity must include the ability to harvest steelhead. But for the majority of anglers, based on our extensive poll of roughly 650 active steelhead anglers, opportunity is defined as being on the water with the chance to catch and release a steelhead.
So what is a steelhead manager to do given this divide in the community of steelhead anglers and thelegal (and I would argue, moral) imperative to protect and sustain wild steelhead? The solution we propose is a portfolio approach to management. That means we should manage some rivers for hatchery fish, thus providing harvest for those who desire that type of fishery, and manage other rivers for wild fish and catch-and-release opportunity.
Our extensive polling suggests this is the type of management model preferred by most anglers – 62 percent want some rivers dedicated to wild steelhead and others where hatcheries provide harvest opportunity, while the remainder either want hatcheries in all rivers or no hatcheries at all.
The challenge comes with actually implementing the framework. A number of anglers have asked how Wild Steelheaders United would deal with such a challenge.
We describe below how we would implement the portfolio approach for winter steelhead in three different rivers in north Puget Sound in Washington. This example is timely because decisions are currently being made in this region about how to manage steelhead hatcheries and where to establish wild steelhead management zones.
First, we would manage the Skagit River system exclusively for wild steelhead. Why? It has by far the largest wild steelhead population of all Puget Sound rivers, roughly 9,000 which is more than the Hoh and Queets rivers on the Olympic Peninsula combined. It has a lot of relatively high quality habitat that can support a fishable (catch-and-release) wild steelhead population and tribal harvest consistent with the tribes’ treaty rights (50 percent of the “harvestable surplus”). And it is a critical population for recovering wild steelhead in greater Puget Sound, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Second, though we believe the Skykomish River has substantial wild steelhead production potential, in the spirit of compromise we would support continuing the current winter steelhead hatchery program in the Sky with a solid monitoring program. If success is defined as the number of hatchery fish caught in fisheries, this is the most successful (and most cost-effective) winter steelhead hatchery of its type in Puget Sound (i.e., segregated hatchery designed to provide harvest opportunity).
Mind you, that is not a high bar to clear given the overall poor performance of such segregated hatchery programs. The Skykomish hatchery should also be operated consistent with standards established by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group to minimize harm to wild steelhead.
Third, in the Stillaguamish River, we suggest experimenting with a different type of hatchery program, one that uses local broodstock to try to rebuild the river’s depleted wild steelhead population. This would enable us to evaluate whether such a hatchery program could be effective for this conservation purpose. To date, there is thin evidence that this is the case, but it could be tried on an experimental basis.
This type of portfolio approach has multiple benefits.
First, it would provide different types of fishing opportunity consistent with angler preference; catch-and-release fisheries for wild fish on the Skagit, and harvest (hatchery fish) opportunity on the Skykomish during the hatchery fish return. The catch-and-release fishery on the Skagit also would increase economic activity in Skagit River communities by adding a fishery that currently does not exist due in significant part to the large number of wild steelhead harvested in past decades.
Second, it would align with the goal of recovering Puget Sound steelhead to the point that they no longer need ESA protection. In particular, ensuring that the “cornerstone” wild steelhead population in the Skagit is spared the harmful impacts of hatcheries and trying to boost the Stilly’s wild steelhead population with a local broodstock program would be consistent with recovery objectives. Harm to the Sky’s wild steelhead would be minimized through use of best management practices consistent with the recommendations of the Hatchery Scientific Review Group and Washington State policy. But it should be recognized that there is absolutely no conservation benefit to wild steelhead of segregated hatcheries such as that used in the Sky, and that there are serious genetic and ecological problems with these types of programs. The science is very clear on this.
Third, it would enable all of us – wild fish zealots and hatchery fish devotees – to learn how these different approaches work relative to one another in relation to both conservation and fishing opportunity goals. In other words, we will have a large-scale, controlled experiment that we have been sorely lacking in Puget Sound. And as we learn from that experiment, we can improve management.
We at TU and Wild Steelheaders United are going to push hard for rivers with high wild steelhead potential, such the Skagit system, to be managed exclusively for wild fish because the evidence shows that it is the best bet both for reliable, sustainable fishing opportunity and conservation of wild steelhead.
Stepping back from the north Puget Sound example, the challenge of managing hatchery and wild steelhead is a microcosm of a larger issue across the range of wild steelhead in the lower-48. Anglers want sustainable fishing opportunity. We are anglers ourselves. We get that. At the same time we want to recover wild steelhead, a requirement established in federal law. We believe the portfolio framework described here is the best approach for meeting these dual objectives. We hope other anglers will see the wisdom in having such a portfolio of wild-only and hatchery rivers and will join us in asking for it.
John McMillan Steelhead Science Director Trout unlimited
The State of our Progress
Oregon: Chapters in Corvallis, Eugene and Coos Bay are gearing up for another season of steelhead angler science. The Bluebacks Chapter is conducting winter spawning surveys on the Siletz River. The Redsides Chapter and Coastal Cutthroat Chapters are beginning surveys and restoration work on the West Fork of the Smith River. The Coastal Cutthroats are also starting a new project on the Coquille completing pre-restoration surveys to gain a baseline for upcoming restoration work. Watch the great video on Angler Science and Find out more and how you can participate.
California: An Action Alert circulated by TU and Wild Steelheaders United in December prompting over 789 messages to Congress in support of the Senate’s Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act. However, the House of Representatives failed to pass its own version of this legislation before adjourning for the holidays, dooming the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which expired on December 31, 2015.
This landmark agreement would have resolved decades of water conflict by providing greater water security for farmers and ranchers while boosting streamflows at critical times for salmon and steelhead. Two other Klamath settlements--for dam removal and water sharing in the upper basin--remain in effect. TU and the other parties to these agreements are already working hard to find new
ways to move forward together.
In early January, 2016 WSU representatives met with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to discuss the concept of managing some watersheds or segments of rivers specifically for recovery of wild steelhead runs. There are five Distinct Population Segments (DPSs) of coastal steelhead in California. Four of these are listed under the Endagered Species Act as threatened or endangered.
The good news is that quite a few coastal watersheds from San Luis Obispo to Crescent City still provide enough intact habitat to sustain wild steelhead populations. In fact, the Eel and other Lost Coast rivers have some of the best wild steelhead genetics on the West Coast. Now, WSU will work with CDFW on next steps utilizing scientific tools (including TU’sConservation Success Index) to guide adjustment of management policy and procedures and to improve angler outreach and education.
Washington: Hard won rules implementing barbless hooks, no wild harvest, and no bait during the winter steelhead season will take effect July 1st on the Olympic Peninsula. A short section of the Hoh River has been designated as a pilot study area to look at minimizing angler impact by restricting fishing from boats. Next steps include working with WDFW to re-open a spring catch and release fishery on the Skagit River, which will in turn take pressure off of OP steelhead. Second we are working to secure funding for increased enforcement of regulations. In December, Washington PBS featured Scotty Creek, an important steelhead tributary in the Wenatchee system in a piece it did on suction dredging. More formally known as motorized recreational mineral prospecting, the activity has come under fire as the state of Washington spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to restore habitat for sensitive species such as steelhead. Due to a lack of regulation a dredger can come in and single handedly unravel that work – legally and most often without repercussion. Trout Unlimited is pushing for common-sense regulation of this activity and be looking to WSU supporters to obtain it.
Idaho: A great step was taken in Idaho this year. Wild Steelheaders United’s first step in Idaho was to ask for better wild steelhead handling regulations and angler education. This year Idaho Fish and Game ran this ad in their fishing regs, a great step forward.
A new and unusual cross-border Trout Unlimited chapter will be holding a formation meeting January 23rd in the Lewiston-Clarkston area. Find out more here and please join them for pizza, beer and a showing of Wild Reverence. Near Stanley Idaho, a Salmon River tributary known as the Yankee Fork has been getting a serious facelift. Heavy equipment used for gold dredging moved the channel in the 1940’s and 50’s. TU is working with local stakeholders to now use heavy equipment to reconstruct the historic channel. Watch a video of this process here. By the end of next summer the Yankee Fork will once again have access to its natural channel and floodplain, and wild steelhead will be among the beneficiaries.
Alaska: In Southeast Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service is modifying the Tongass Forest Plan, which provides the management blueprint for the forest. The Tongass National Forest is the largest in the country and a mecca for wild steelhead. Currently development activities that harm important fish habitat are still allowed in the Tongass National Forest. Take a moment to support protection of the key 70 watersheds that are key to steelhead and salmon recovery. Take Action
January 23: Trout Unlimited Chapter formation meeting and Wild Reverence Showing inLewiston, Idaho.