Editor’s Note: This is a contribution from Wild Steelhead Coalition. Longtime friends, contributors to Steelheader’s Journal , and passionate advocates for Pacific Northwest Steelhead, Rich Simms and Greg Fitz authored the piece below and we hope that it prompts some thought and introspection on your side of the screen.
A Tough Winter
There’s no doubt about it: this Washington winter steelhead season was as challenging as any in memory. It followed historic low summer steelhead runs that constrained fisheries on the Columbia River system. Poor fall coho and early winter hatchery steelhead returns closed out 2019 with a reminder of the deficiencies of Washington’s longtime Chambers Creek hatchery program. Run projections for the new year indicated a season of few wild winter steelhead returning. Early 2020 kicked off with a near absence of broodstock steelhead in fisheries such as the Queets and Wynoochee, usually bustling with fish and anglers around the New Year’s Holiday. These grim numbers were followed by high water during much of January, cancelling and postponing many trips. Just as wild steelhead started to show in February, WDFW managers announced the closure of the Chehalis and its tributaries due to low returns of wild fish. Closure of the Willapa Bay system soon followed.
The Skagit and Sauk Rivers, after partially re-opening in 2018 with just one full season in 2019, was closed again due to low projected returns, failing to meet the required thresholds of the fisheries management plan. Elsewhere in Puget Sound, it has been twenty years since many of the other famous rivers have been able to sustain a wild steelhead C&R season.
After the closures on the Chehalis, Willapa and Skagit, the OP and Southwest Washington remained open. Displaced anglers crowded onto the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula. The Hoh, Bogachiel, Queets and Sol Duc, among others, have grown busier and busier each year, and this year saw large numbers of boats and anglers from throughout the region and out of state travel to fish these classic watersheds. If you were fishing out on the OP this year, the odds are you weren’t alone very often. A few fish continued to trickle in and anxiety remained high among the steelhead angling community.
Finally, the season ended abruptly in March as efforts to slow the spread of Coronavirus led to a temporary ban on angling statewide. Even before then, Washington steelheaders saw a reduced number of opportunities to fish as their favorite watersheds closed and rivers across Western Washington saw wild winter steelhead runs at near historic lows.
The Last Great Place
Despite their popularity, the fact is the steelhead in the beautiful rivers of the Olympic Peninsula are struggling. Run counts have been on a long downward trend for decades. Many have repeatedly missed spawning escapement requirements and there are some biologists who believe those baselines are too small for recovery where they now stand. A number of these iconic watersheds are at real risk of having their wild steelhead listed under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. Every year, there are more and more anglers and fewer and fewer steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula.
Contemporary steelhead anglers are effective and efficient anglers equipped with better equipment, information and technological resources. There are more of us fishing the deep holding water from boats and many more fly fisherman swinging every run. An older generation of guides and plenty of new, younger guides are helping visitors find fish. We are now handling almost every fish returning to the rivers. Ask anyone who fishes the OP. It obvious to everyone. The fish that do return are under immense pressure.
Steelheaders know how this grim story ends. We only need to look to the Endangered Species Act listings on the famous rivers of Puget Sound, or more recently, the collapsing fisheries on Columbia tributaries like the Clearwater and Grand Ronde, to know what happens to communities and angling opportunities when the fish are gone. As watersheds like the Chehalis and the Skagit close to angling, how long before the same thing will be required to protect the last fish on the Hoh, Queets, Bogachiel or Sol Duc?
The causes of steelhead declines are complex. Historic levels of harvest were extensive. Habitat loss and degradation is an issue, especially in spawning tributaries, but the rivers of the OP have generally been spared the dams, clearcutting in headwaters and human development common across the rest of the region. Ocean conditions have been especially poor during the recent Blob years. Even returns of hatchery fish across the OP have largely faltered. Only the Sol Duc, since being established as a Wild Steelhead Gene Bank, has seen evidence of wild steelhead population stability.
Many will point fingers at commercial harvest by tribal co-managers, but gillnets are far from the only source of wild fish mortality. Incidental mortality in catch-and-release fisheries remains a dilemma for anglers. Reduced spawning success of steelhead caught too many times is a concern. And wild fish are still being killed by poachers on the Olympic Peninsula.
Angling media shares responsibility for continuing to promote the OP over other open winter steelhead fisheries in Oregon, southwest Washington and British Columbia, despite the continued decline of wild returns on Washington’s north coast. The story of these famous rivers is often built around wishful thinking and outdated understandings of the current situation, especially when written for, or by, anglers from outside the state.
Every factor accumulates and has an effect, especially when run numbers have shrunk to such low numbers and barely any fish can be spared. We need the wild steelhead that do return to spawn successfully and rebuild their populations utilizing the quality, and protected, habitat that remains on the OP.
As steelheaders, we should be honest with ourselves. The downward trajectory has to change. Because we love these rivers and fish, and we want to keep fishing, we must lead the charge to limit our impact and restore steelhead runs before they are lost entirely.
A Better Way Forward Together
Wild steelhead numbers are at a terrible inflection point in Washington. Even on the Olympic Peninsula, one the “last great places” in the lower 48 states, they are teetering dangerously near collapse. Something has to change. The paradigm of fishing down to nothing must end.
We all have a part to play in this, but what we don’t have is much more time. Throughout steelhead country, we need to look seriously and honestly at how angling pressure affects fisheries, and our perceptions of their viability, especially when the numbers of fish are so deeply suppressed. If we hope to keep fishing, while we patiently wait for long term solutions to take effect, we must search for ways to lessen our impact, otherwise shutting down rivers becomes the only responsible choice to protect the last steelhead.
But what does this combination of restraint and restoration look like? It might mean limitations on the most effective angling methods or the number of anglers allowed daily on certain rivers. It could be partial watershed closures or limits to the number of wild fish handled, even in catch-and-release fisheries where we are handling the majority of the run over the course of the season. It certainly requires additional efforts to open up migration routes everywhere we can, for both returning adults and ocean-bound smolts. We must demand more selective commercial fishing methods and monitor predation. We absolutely must find more ways to protect and restore habitat, from removing culverts to protecting spawning tributaries, and limit bycatch and incidental mortalities.
Nobody cares for their home waters like anglers and it is time for all steelhead anglers to be leaders, no matter their preferred fishing methods. We must come together for wild steelhead, the watersheds they depend upon, and the rural communities that thrive when the fish and anglers are present. We must look to serious, durable solutions and push to enact them, holding fisheries managers accountable.
If we are going to continue steelhead fishing into the future; if we are going to take our children to these rivers and teach them to fish for steelhead the way our mentors and parents taught us, then the time to act together is now, before it is finally too late.
Board Member and Co-Founder, Wild Steelhead Coalition