Recently a few of our members raised some questions and concerns about opening a spring catch-and-release (C&R) fishery on the Skagit River. Their primary concern was to protect the healthiest remaining wild steelhead run in Puget Sound — meaning there should be no C&R season — to prevent another population collapse like the one that resulted in the closure of the fishery. We absolutely agree that we need to protect this population. It produces more wild winter steelhead than all the other rivers combined in Puget Sound, and we feel it represents the cornerstone of recovery for the entire region. However, there are a number of reasons why Wild Steelheaders United and Trout Unlimited support reopening the spring C&R fishery.
First and foremost, we feel that a C&R fishery can be implemented in a way that provides fishing opportunity without harming recovery of the population. This would be consistent with how steelhead are managed elsewhere after being listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). For example, there are numerous C&R fisheries for ESA-listed steelhead across the Pacific Northwest, including vast part of the Columbia River Basin. The success of the fisheries have demonstrated how angling pressure and restrictive regulations can be balanced to provide sustainable fishing opportunity without compromising recovery of the steelhead.
That said, we cannot overemphasize how important it is to structure the fishery in a way that minimizes the effects of anglers. Steelhead fishing has surged in popularity, and the techniques and gear are more effective than ever. Sustaining the fishery over time thus depends on anglers supporting self-restriction, and we think that is far more likely than not as evidenced by the overwhelming support for the recent rule changes on the Olympic Peninsula. The support for the rule changes demonstrated that anglers are accepting of restrictions if it necessary to maintain fishing opportunity. Most anglers understand that some opportunity is better than no opportunity, and that regulations are necessary to protect the population from over-exploitation.
Second, there are checks and balances in place with the ESA to ensure the fishery will not jeopardize recovery of the population. The law of the ESA affords additional protections and outlines a process by which the impacts of a fishery must be evaluated and minimized. For a C&R sport fishery to occur WDFW will need to develop a Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan (FMEP) which must then be approved by NOAA. Among the requirements of an acceptable FMEP are: (1) monitoring of the fishery’s impact on the wild steelhead population, (2) angler education, (3) effective enforcement, and (4) escapement objectives or maximum exploitation rates. Obviously we cannot say exactly what this fishery would look like but there will be involvement from the public and we will be there to provide our input on the best ways to manage this fishery to minimize angler impacts.
Third, time and again anglers and hunters have proven to be highly effective advocates for protecting and restoring crucial wildlife and fisheries habitat. Sportsmen and women have a deep personal connection to, and stake in, conservation of the places they fish and hunt and the game they pursue. Fueled by this passion, they will speak up for the protection and restoration of habitat and the animals that depend on it. In this vein, more anglers on the river fishing for steelhead increases the number of advocates for the habitat in the Skagit River and Puget Sound. This is important given the changes that are likely to happen to Puget Sound over the coming decades.
Fourth, the closure of the Skagit has had far reaching impacts. The Olympic Peninsula rivers have felt the brunt of the impact because they have become the defacto destination for all the Puget Sound steelheaders that were orphaned by the closure of their rivers. This has resulted in much more crowded conditions, which by all accounts has diminished the quality of the steelhead fishing experience and resulted in high encounter rates with wild steelhead. These high encounter rates increasingly threaten the Peninsula populations because they are in long-term decline and unless the declines are reversed in the next 10-20 years, they may eventually require Federal protection. In other words, a well-regulated fishery in the Skagit would help reduce the burden and conservation concerns for the last remaining great winter steelhead fishery in Washington.
While the Skagit wild steelhead are ESA-listed, the likelihood of extinction of the next 100 years is very low. In fact, over the past 6 years the Skagit has seen a resurgence in wild fish populations. In 2009 only 2600 wild steelhead returned, but each year the population grew until a peak of almost 9,100 wild steelhead in 2014. Last year the run was over 8,600 wild steelhead. To put that in perspective, in 2013-2014 the Skagit produced more wild steelhead than the Hoh and Queets combined. It is also consistent with the number of wild steelhead produced in the Quillayute River watershed, Washington’s strongest population of wild winter steelhead. So the Skagit wild steelhead are currently doing quite well and the river is outproducing most other watersheds that currently have C&R fisheries. Given the rebound in the run and the strong prognosis for its future, we think it is an appropriate time to discuss a well-regulated C&R wild steelhead fishery.
As we have outlined here, there is a solid precedence for well-regulated fisheries on ESA-listed steelhead across the region and among those, the Skagit is one of the most abundant populations. Hence, we think the Skagit is a perfect candidate for a C&R fishery that is structured to provide opportunity while minimizing angler impacts. Such a fishery would provide a model of how wild rivers can work to sustain a recovering population while also supporting a sport fishery. It would also increase the number of advocates working to conserve and restore habitat in Puget Sound. In closing, opening the Skagit River is not just about more fishing opportunity however, it is about reconnecting anglers to rivers — a long-held tradition in Washington — and demonstrating that the benefits of a well-managed C&R fishery extend beyond the fish and into the habitat and rural economies of the area.