Trout Unlimited has been working with guides and anglers to discuss and facilitate limited entry guide legislation for the Olympic Peninsula (OP). As part of this process we collaborated with the Olympic Peninsula Guides Association (OPGA) to draft and pass a budget proviso during the last legislative session. The proviso directs the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (the Department) to hold public meetings to gather more input from guides and anglers about the potential for guide legislation on the OP. The proviso also requires the Department to hold a meeting to discuss the topic of guide legislation in the Klickitat River, although that process is only exploratory at this point. Accordingly, the Department will hold two meetings in the coming weeks, on in Forks and another in Lyle.
TU believes that better guide regulation is needed both to keep wild steelhead encounter rates at levels that enable OP wild steelhead to thrive as well as to prevent over-crowding and equitable treatment of guided and non-guided anglers. Together with the OPGA and City of Forks we are working to get a bill introduced in the upcoming legislative session that would implement a pilot program on the Olympic Peninsula’s North Coast Rivers.
Why sport-fishing guide legislation is important to the Olympic Peninsula winter steelhead fishery
The place and the fishery
The west side of the Olympic Peninsula (OP) is home to some of the best winter steelhead rivers on the planet. As a result, over the past decade the region has morphed from a remote rainforest outpost to a premiere steelheading destination. Several factors have contributed to this spike in OP steelhead pressure. First, the region has been heavily promoted in social and traditional media as a place to catch big steelhead under a canopy of moss draped, ancient trees. Second, fishing opportunity for wild steelhead closed in Puget Sound in 2010 after steelhead were listed under the Endangered Species Act. In fact, there are almost no places for Puget Sound residents to fish for winter steelhead during the spring. Those orphaned anglers, in search of a steelhead “fix”, are now coming to the OP and the city of Forks. Third, the number of guides working the OP rivers during steelhead season has increased substantially. And, finally, the human population in western Washington has grown rapidly and will continue to grow as more people move here for economic opportunity and the high quality of life it provides.
There are benefits to the increased interest in OP rivers. Each year thousands of anglers visit the area. They stay in local motels, eat at restaurants, purchase gas and food, and hopefully, if they have a quality experience, return the next year to do the same. The influx of people and money is critical to the economy of Forks, especially during winter when there would otherwise be few tourists visiting the area. Without question, the steelhead fishery is economically important to the area during the winter and spring.
While guiding is an important part of the local economy, if not properly regulated it can have major negative impacts on both the fish and the fishery, including:
Increased impacts on depleted stocks of wild steelhead:
Many populations of wild steelhead are in decline on the OP and the future of the winter steelhead fishery is uncertain. Wild steelhead returns on the Hoh River, for example, have declined by almost 40% since 1980. Guided sport angling for steelhead is not the primary reason for this decline, but the increasing guide pressure is likely contributing to the problem. Case in point, WDFW creel surveys indicate that in 2015 anglers caught and released a total number of steelhead that exceeded the escapement in the Hoh and Sol Duc. In other words, every steelhead was caught on average more than once and guided anglers are responsible for catching the vast majority of those fish. Even if all fish are released some will die due to poor handling and being hooked in vital areas, such as the tongue or gills. Other fish, particularly females caught multiple times, may not be as successful reproducing. To keep incidental mortality low and reproductive success high we need to control the fishing pressure.
Diminished quality of experience
Crowded rivers are degrading the quality of the experience. Anglers enjoy visiting the OP not only because of the steelhead, but also because of its solitude and beauty. With many guides operating on OP rivers it is very common to see a parade of boats floating down river with guides competing to “get their clients into fish,” often resulting in very high catch rates. While professional guides are, in general, courteous and ethical, the sheer number of guides and non-guided anglers can lead to poor behavior and confrontations on the river.
Severe imbalance among user groups
Non-guided anglers are seeing their opportunity to catch fish diminish. For example, in 2014 over 14,000 anglers fished the Quillayute River system. Guided anglers represented only 28% of the total anglers, but they accounted for 75% of all the steelhead that were caught. The disparity between guided and non-guided anglers is similar in the Hoh.
Improved guide legislation is not the sole solution to the challenges facing the OP’s wild steelhead and the fishery they support, but it is an important component of a broader strategy that includes habitat restoration and improvements in fishery management. For example, other states and provinces place more limitations on sport guiding than Washington has on their high-value, destination recreational fisheries — fisheries that are very similar to the OP. British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon limit sport-guiding in high quality, destination fisheries to both protect the fish and sustain a robust fishery that attracts anglers year-in and year-out.
The goal of legislation, as it has been implemented in other areas, is not to eliminate anyone who has been participating as a guide in the fishery. Rather, the aim is to cap guide activity at a sustainable level that works for both the fish and anglers. Anything we can do now to stem the decline of the OP’s wild steelhead will help protect fishing opportunity and the substantial benefits it provides to the local economy.