An uprising and next steps on the Olympic Peninsula

In Washington by steelheaders

An uprising and next steps on the OP

An angler uprising. That is what we felt over the past few months as momentum began to build towards the Fish and Wildlife Commission (the Commission) meeting this past Friday. And the payoff was a step forward for wild steelhead and the famed Olympic Peninsula (OP) fishery.

Several months have now passed since the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (the Department) convened a 13-member group of anglers, from Forks to Seattle, that were familiar with the OP winter steelhead fishery. Their goal was to review and discuss the status of the fish and the fishery and, if deemed necessary, propose a handful of meaningful regulation changes. The group compromised on two main changes, including catch-and-release of wild steelhead and implementation of selective gear rules during last two-and-a-half months of the season (Feb. 15-April 31). They also proposed a relatively short 6-mile reach in which fishing from a boat will not be allowed.

The amount of work put in by the Department staff and the advisory group was evident in the attention the rules generated. The Department received a stunning 643 comments on the wild steelhead release rule, and 92% of those were supportive. 89% of the 473 comments supported the selective gear rule, while 68% of 854 comments supported the no-fishing-from boat proposal for the upper-most Hoh. Momentum carried over to the November Commission meeting where 36 anglers provided testimony, nearly all of which spoke in favor of steelhead conservation and asked the Commission to take the lead.

Agencies are not immune to criticism that they are not “listening to the anglers,” while the agency has a fair argument in wondering “why more anglers don’t participate” in their processes. To make a difference, anglers have to get involved, and for agency management to reflect the anglers, they need to listen. That is indeed what happened here.

On behalf of Trout Unlimited we would like to extend a sincere thank you to the Department for establishing the ad-hoc group of anglers. The regulation package would not have been possible without all the hard work by Department staff.

We also want to commend the Commission, who donate their time and effort to the greater good. It was clear, based on their comments, that they care deeply about wild steelhead and the anglers and guides who pursue them.

Change is never easy or entirely without dissenting opinion. Some did not support different aspects of the packages, but by in large, there was more unity that ever before. Much work remains, but the first step is always the hardest.

While a step in the right direction feels rewarding after all the hard work, there are other equally important issues that lie ahead. We at Trout Unlimited are focused on working with anglers, guides, the Department and the Commission to ensure the OP gets adequate enforcement during the winter steelhead season. It is critical to have more enforcement committed to the Peninsula before the rules take effect next year.

We will also continue to participate in the North Coast Steelhead Advisory Group, where next steps will include discussing guide legislation and an OP endorsement tag that would contribute funds to monitoring and management of wild steelhead.

Last, but certainly not least, we will continue to work with the Department, the Commission to get a well-regulated catch-and-release spring steelhead fishery on the Skagit River as well as to protect it as a wild steelhead gene bank.   It seems as though Washington anglers lose more opportunity every year. For once however, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Skagit wild steelhead have been increasing steadily and now seems ready to provide an opportunity once lost. The fishery would not only benefit local anglers and rural economies, but would also help siphon off pressure from the OP.

We have a long road ahead. Let’s keep the momentum going.   But also, the next time you are floating down the river or sitting on the river bank, take an extra moment to savor this achievement.