By Rob Masonis
That is what I consider myself for having been able to make a living for more than two decades protecting and restoring the great steelhead and salmon rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
The muscular, jaw-droppingly beautiful rivers themselves have provided plenty of inspiration for my work. But the wild steelhead that swim in their waters — and the magical, singular experience of pursuing them with rod and reel — was and continues to be my greatest motivation. That connection is visceral, compelling, and I know I am not alone in this experience.
To be sure, there remains much habitat work to be done, but as I look back I can see tremendous progress and it should be celebrated. The dedicated, talented staff and volunteers at Trout Unlimited have played a major role in many habitat success stories, and I could not be more proud of our habitat work. Steelhead now have access to thousands of miles of previously blocked habitat. Glines and Elwha (Elwha), Condit (White Salmon), Savage Rapids (Rogue), and Marmot (Sandy) dams were removed, restoring free-flowing rivers and opening up large swaths of steelhead spawning and rearing habitat. Several large dams, including those on the Cowlitz, Lewis and Deschutes rivers, that had blocked fish now allow passage. And hundreds of fish-blocking road culverts have been replaced.
We are doing a much better job managing instream flow and keeping river systems connected. Drastic fluctuations in water releases below hydroelectric dams was a big fish killer two decades ago. That is no longer the case. Through the purchase and leasing of water rights and irrigation system upgrades, steelhead streams and rivers that once ran dry in the summer now flow year-round.
Forest management is much better now than it was back in the 90s. Gone are the days when trees were commonly cut down to the river’s edge. Stream buffers that provide shade and large wood are required (though buffer size needs to be larger in many cases). Many logging roads that were choking spawning and rearing habitat with sediment have been decommissioned. Farm and ranch operations are steadily improving. Fences to keep cows out riparian zones are increasingly common. Many irrigation diversions are now screened to prevent fish from ending up dead in farmers’ fields.
Is there more habitat work to be done? You bet there is. But we should realize and take pride in the fact that many steelhead rivers have better habitat today than they did 20 years or even a half-century ago.
Which brings me to my point: we need to do a better job managing steelhead – the fish themselves – if we are to realize the value of our huge habitat investments. The best habitat on the planet will not produce more wild steelhead if there are not wild steelhead to use it.
One year into our Wild Steelhead Initiative we have made significant progress focusing attention on fishery and hatchery management reforms needed to rebuild abundant, fishable wild steelhead populations in our best remaining steelhead rivers. Steelhead anglers are speaking up and being heard.
The evidence? When more than 90 percent of public comments supported regulations to end sport harvest of wild steelhead and the use of bait to target wild steelhead on Washington’s storied Olympic Peninsula rivers, that’s progress. When a strong majority of anglers stood up and spoke out in favor of managing the Skagit and Elwha rivers exclusively for wild steelhead, that’s progress.
We’re off to a good start. Together, as Wild Steelheaders United, we must see the work through. The future of wild steelhead and the opportunity to fish for them hangs in the balance.