One of the few real success stories in steelhead conservation over the past decade is the comeback of wild steelhead in the Skagit River system. As we have been saying for several years, the rebound of this population has been substantial enough to consider re-opening the Skagit for a spring steelhead season. Wild Steelheaders United and other angling advocates have strongly encouraged the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to take this action. In late 2016 WDFW took a major step towards accomplishing this task by submitting a proposal to re-open the Skagit for spring steelhead fishing to NOAA Fisheries, the agency responsible for ensuring that ESA-listed species are properly managed.
NOAA Fisheries is now going through the formal process of reviewing the co-managers proposal to determine if it complies with the requirements of the ESA. This complex process includes public comment on two different documents, the first 30-day period having just ended. We have been pushing, and continue to push, NOAA to complete the process quickly. Concurrent with NOAA’s review of the RMP, WDFW is holding two public meetings this Friday Jan 12th in Mill Creek and Tuesday Jan 16th in Sedro-Woolley, see the end of the post for more details. We are getting tantalizingly close to a spring Skagit wild steelhead fishery, but there is still much work to be done.
While we believe the Skagit should be open, the Skagit River Steelhead Fishery Resource Management Plan (RMP) as written doesn’t provide adequate protection for Skagit steelhead, nor is it structured to provide a high-quality fishery.
Specifically, the science is lacking in the RMP analyses (read our detailed comments here). Further, the RMP does not propose any measures to limit impacts from sport fishermen within the proposed fishing season. This is a significant oversight because it will likely lead to the fishery reaching its impact limit prior to the end of the proposed three month season, in which case the fishery would close.
Anglers are more effective than ever at catching steelhead and it is reasonable to assume that catch rates on the Skagit will be similar to those of other popular steelhead fisheries in Washington. Anglers were estimated to have caught 4,580 wild steelhead in the Hoh River in the 2014-2015 winter season. Estimates for the Sol Duc are even higher but the analysis is less robust. The escapement estimate for Hoh wild steelhead in 2015 was 3171, meaning that anglers encountered 144% of the escapement, or that each fish was caught on average 1.4 times. This was the best estimate that could be generated from the data collected but it is actually an underestimate because the surveys were not accurately counting all anglers (Bentley 2016). Furthermore, the vast majority of fish were encountered in a three-month time period, the same length as the proposed Skagit spring sport fishery.
Wild Steelheaders United used the creel data from the Hoh (Bentley 2016) to simulate a variety of encounter rates at different escapement sizes to see how often anglers could be expected to catch enough fish to hit the maximum exploitation rates in the Skagit (fig 1). At a high catch rate estimation of 140% of escapement, impact limits would be reached annually under the proposed harvest schedule when escapements are below 8,000. Above escapements of 8,000 the fishery would remain open annually at the same encounter rate, but barely. At a slightly higher encounter rate of 150% of an 8,000 fish escapement, the fishery would reach its impact limit annually. When we examine WDFW’s data for Skagit wild steelhead we see that escapements over 8,000 fish have been relatively uncommon since 1978, only having been reached a few times during the 1980’s and the recent population surge over the past few years (fig 2). Rather, the most common escapement values have fallen within the 4,000 – 8,000 fish range.
Figure 1. Zero represents the maximum allowable impact rate at the harvest schedule proposed in the RMP. Negative values indicate fishing seasons where impact rates would be exceeded during a sport fishery and positive values indicate years in which impacts would still be available at the end of the season.
While these encounter rates may seem high, recall that in just two weeks in April anglers caught over 2200 wild steelhead in the Hoh in 2015 (Bentley 2016). The season on the Skagit will likely be shorter than the Hoh. However, the Hoh is also one of many rivers on the Olympic Peninsula open to angling so anglers can spread out. In contrast, the Skagit will be the only wild steelhead fishery in the Sound at that time of year, so any steelhead angler wanting a quick fix will be heading that way, resulting in high levels of angling pressure. This means we have a good chance of reaching or exceeding our impact rates.
Figure 2. Skagit Wild Steelhead escapement. Source WDFW Score online database.
Hitting impact rates on an annual basis is not good for several reasons. The fishery will close early if impact rates are reached, which is not consistent with fishery goals. Also, reaching the maximum allowable impact rate increases risk of angling-related harm. There is significant uncertainty in run-size forecasting—when that is considered with the proposed tiered impact rates it creates a situation where run sizes will be over forecasted and subject to a much higher impact rate than they should be. For example, with the RMP’s proposed impact rates, a run forecast of 6,500 fish would be allowed a total impact of 20%, or 1300 fish. If that run only came in at 5500 the impact of 1300 fish would be used even though, according to the RMP, it should only have an impact rate of 10%, or 550 fish. In other words, the run could be significantly overfished.
Regulations have been used successfully in many Pacific Coast steelhead fisheries to reduce encounter rates on wild steelhead thereby minimizing fishery impacts. The types of regulations that should be considered include:
- no power boats
- no fishing from boats
- time and/or area closures
- limited guided angler days
- gear restrictions
Of all these management options, gear restrictions provide the most flexibility and angling opportunity. To be clear, WSU does not support creating a “fly fishing only” steelhead fishery for the Skagit. One reason is that angler encounter rates have increased for fly fishing in recent years due in large part to the growing popularity of highly effective methods such as drifting a bead under a bobber, often from a boat. Instead, for the Skagit we recommend no bait, only one single point barbless hook, and keeping wild fish in the water. These regulations are all supported by scientific literature which has demonstrated their effectiveness at limiting mortality and minimizing sub-lethal effects when wild steelhead are caught and released.
There are many ways to maximize both fishing opportunity and conservation, and there are a variety of examples from other rivers that could be integrated into new regulations for the Skagit. We must be conservative, and creative, in structuring a Skagit fishery that would provide both a full season of angling opportunity and a high-quality catch and release fishery.
The public meetings held by WDFW will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the following locations:
- Mill Creek: This Friday Jan. 12, WDFW Regional Office, 16018 Mill Creek Blvd., Mill Creek
- Sedro-Woolley: Tuesday Jan. 16, Sedro-Woolley Community Center, 702 Pacific St., Sedro-Woolley
We urge you to attend and speak up for wild steelhead and consistent future fishing opportunity.