As a rule, public comment periods for proposed regulations are not sexy.
They are not attention grabbers. They’re not headline makers. Sometimes, they’re not even interesting enough to garner the attention of a single citizen. For that you need protests. Public displays. But comment periods? While they exude patriotism, practically stinking of the fundamentals of democracy, let’s be honest. They can be a snooze fest.
Unless they involve steelhead.
Over the last few weeks, more than 3,000 letters poured in to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, many in support of the recommendations made by North Coast Steelhead Advisory Council, a group convened to recommend sport fishing regulation changes to improve steelhead management on the Olympic Peninsula. The Commission took oral comments on the proposed regulations last Saturday.
Steelheaders showed up in force, trudging through the rain on an early Saturday morning, filling every seat, spilling into the aisles, pushing an already full room beyond capacity. The faces were diverse — well-known steelhead writers, guides, TU chapter leaders, fishing shop owners, biologists and conservationists.
Before opening the floor for comments, the commission reviewed responses they had received in preceding weeks. The split was as follows:
On the proposal to close fishing from a boat from the Olympic Park boundary to Morgan’s Crossing on the Hoh River: 50-50 split
On the proposal to close wild steelhead harvest on the OP: 90 percent in favor
On the proposal to adopt selective gear rules during a portion of the winter fishery: 90 percent in favor
Once the testimony began it was clear that the trend seen in the written comments was reflected in the room. More than thirty people testified, and roughly 80% expressed support of the proposed rules, favored the banning of bait, the use of barbless hooks and the institution of a catch and release fishery on the Olympic Peninsula..
Anglers had spoken: They were concerned about the future of the OP’s wild steelhead and wanted to be regulated for the good of the fish and the sustainability of the fishery.
“You have given the commission the motivation to lead by example and fight for the fish,” said Commissioner Miranda Wecker, of Naselle.
If adopted, the proposed rule changes would not be a silver bullet for what ails the OP’s wild steelhead, but a major step in the right direction. Times are changing. Rivers are crowded. Fish are fewer. To maintain healthy wild steelhead populations and have reliable, sustainable fisheries, we must adapt. Based on the written and oral testimony regarding the OP rules, steelhead anglers get that.
“We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive,” said Aldo Leopold.
So we will strive. And in doing so we will rebuild wild steelhead – if not to their historic abundance – to a much stronger state than they are in now. If we achieve that, we anglers will be rewarded with more time on the water.
What’s next? The Commission will meet on Dec. 11th and 12th in Port Townsend where they will make a final decision on the OP rule proposals.