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Puget Sound Winter Steelhead Sport Fishing – Gone for Good?

Puget Sound is a large inland marine system whose rivers and streams have historically had excellent populations of winter steelhead (both native and hatchery fish) that supported important sport fishing opportunities. Many anglers would brave rain, cold and snow to stand in a stream for hours, trying to hook onto one of these prized fish (up to a trophy size of 20 lbs). Sadly, over the last few decades, this sport fishery has been slowly disappearing and is now almost gone, maybe for good. How come?

A little bit of background on major events that have affected this sport fishery. First was the Judge Boldt decision in 1972, where the judge ruled that the salmon/steelhead resources within Puget Sound must be shared 50-50 between Native Americans and non-Native Americans. This immediately decreased the number of steelhead and salmon available to the sport fishermen. It also led to the co-management of the resources. Various positive and negative opinions have been expressed over the Boldt decision. However, it set the management in a different direction with more people involved. It also set new and untested legal issues in motion.

A second event that affected this fishery was the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Through many legal battles, protection of “wild” or “native” steelhead became paramount because studies with various results showed that hatchery steelhead were/were not as viable as the “native” fish. You can pick which side you want on this one, because studies with both positive and negative results exist. It has been claimed, however, that hatchery fish are not good for the native fish (even though they swim around in the Pacific Ocean for several years and return to their stream of origin to spawn). Likely, most sport fishermen and the general population would like to see strong returns of “native” fish, with no need for hatcheries.

In addition to the Boldt decision and the ESA, other legislation has also affected the salmon and steelhead populations of Puget Sound (and elsewhere along the Pacific Coast). Of particular interest is the protection of seals, sea lions, and other predators (such as birds) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other legislation.

How have these events affected the winter steelhead sport fishery? First, as noted above, the Boldt decision diminished the number of fish available to the sport fishery. To some degree, this was mitigated by a very active program to develop mark-selective fishing on hatchery steelhead. Though details changed, the general approach was to mark outmigrating steelhead at hatcheries by removing the adipose fins (a small fin near the tail of the fish). With this clearly visible “mark”, the fishermen were allowed to keep marked fish, but unmarked fish (i.e., fish with a visible adipose fin) had to be returned to the stream (i.e., not kept). Other measures, such as using barbless hooks and reduced seasons, were implemented to further protect the “native” fish. These efforts allowed a viable winter steelhead fishery to occur, although the success rate per angler in Puget Sound streams has diminished, likely due to population growth and increased interest in this fishery.

The ESA has been used to eliminate much of the hatchery production of winter steelhead in Puget Sound streams. In a recent legal dispute, the “Wild Fish Conservancy” fought for the elimination of hatchery production of winter steelhead in Puget Sound streams. The case was settled with the Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (WDFW) paying the legal fees and several thousand dollars to the Conservancy (the funds likely came out of sport fishermen’s money paid for license fees). As part of the settlement, the WDFW also agreed to not release any outmigrant steelhead from hatcheries in many Puget Sound streams. In 2014, the outmigrants that were already being reared in the hatcheries were released to lakes or other water bodies where they could not migrate to the ocean and return as adults. That left only one year of young hatchery fish to keep the hatchery system operable. So, what happened in 2015? The WDFW again released the outmigrants into non-migratory lakes. With no winter steelhead in the mark/selective approach returning as brood stock, the hatchery program has essentially dissolved, and future prospects for any revival are dependent on a determination by the National Marine Fisheries Service on whether or how hatchery management can be made compatible with recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead.

The protection of predators on steelhead (as mentioned above) is only one additional step down for future steelhead recovery. The virtual explosion of marine mammal populations with little or no control (because of protection under the MMPA) further diminishes the populations available for any future sport fishing.

Is this situation (i.e., elimination of the sport fishery for steelhead in certain Puget Sound streams) a universal event? The answer is no. Some streams in Washington support very important winter steelhead sport fisheries through hatchery production. A good example is the Cowlitz River in southwest Washington. The returns of adult winter steelhead this year were so good that the limit was raised from 2 fish to 3 fish per day, mainly because the hatchery had sufficient numbers of returning adults for its program. Another example is the Columbia River system, which has increasing or record returns of a number of hatchery salmon/steelhead runs that support a very viable sport fishing program.

So, what’s the bottom line on the differences between the decline in Puget Sound sport fishing opportunities in Puget Sound (ongoing for many years) and programs that are currently very successful? In my opinion, the successful programs (through many years of negotiations, discussions, and back-and-forth efforts) have established recovery plans that have established goals of re-establishing and increasing salmon/steelhead and have put in the efforts to achieve those goals. It takes time and effort plus considerable amounts of money to make these plans work. On the Columbia, for example, millions of dollars have been spent on research, habitat restoration and enhancement, management, and other planning efforts. This money has been derived from water users, hydropower producers, and others. The sport fishermen also provide additional funds by paying an additional license fee if they fish in the Columbia River basin. Overall, a mix of both hatchery fish and native fish are part of the planning goals.

There are many very positive efforts in Puget Sound to recover steelhead and other anadromous fish populations. However, hatchery fish are not currently in the mix on some streams, and planning efforts appear to be bogged down. What appears to the general public is that winter steelhead sport fishing, for the foreseeable future, will continue to decline and perhaps entirely disappear because no releases of outmigrants have been made to continue the cycle. In addition, it is likely that with the large number of people now in the Puget Sound area, wild fish will not recover to a level that could support a sport fishery.

Are there possible solutions to the challenges of decreased opportunities for sports fishermen? This is a complex question, and many diverse opinions have been expressed. The diversity of environmental conditions and resource utilization play a large role in maintaining or recovering wild steelhead and salmon populations along the Pacific coast. For example, in Alaska, most of the salmon/steelhead populations are wild even though significant commercial fisheries (and localized sport fisheries) exist. In general, the watershed conditions and climate offer favorable conditions for these populations to be sustained.

In contrast to Alaska, the often severe environmental challenges faced by wild salmon/steelhead populations in other Pacific coast states (i.e., Washington, Oregon, and California) need to be realistically factored into the management plans (they are often considered, but the discussion often bogs down before plans are completed or implemented). For example, can wild steelhead/salmon populations be maintained in California if drought conditions leave only dry and impassable stream conditions for outmigrants or returning adults? The answer, of course, is no, unless some type of intervention (e.g., transport around critical areas) is provided. Similarly, under such conditions, can wild fish populations be maintained without some type of intervention such as hatchery supplementation or transport around dry stream beds? If the answer is to eliminate consideration of supplementation (where needed) and other interventions such as transport, the probability is that wild populations can’t support even a limited sport fishery or that the populations will disappear altogether (such as the case where streams run dry due to drought conditions). If the answer is to actively pursue measures to at least maintain populations through some type of interventions in hopes that conditions future conditions become more favorable, there may be a probability that stressed populations can survive.

In Puget Sound, the loss of two years of winter steelhead hatchery production (i.e., no outmigrants) in some streams clearly will diminish the probability of a sport fishery in those streams affected. Environmental conditions such as streamflow are still somewhat favorable to maintenance of residual wild populations which, in general, cannot by themselves sustain a sport fishery.