The Unfortunate Inevitability of Washington’s Boat Ban for Steelhead Fishing

The Unfortunate Inevitability of Washington’s Boat Ban for Steelhead Fishing

Faced with several years of dismal steelhead returns and even worse predictions this year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in early December announced a suite of new angling regulations meant to reduce impacts on fish while preserving fishing opportunity. Among those regulations are single-point barbless hooks, no bait, earlier closures, and a prohibition on fishing from a floating device on all coastal streams.

Many anglers and guides are upset by the new regulations. Others view them as a natural progression as Washington’s native steelhead stocks continue their tailspin toward extinction.

Steelhead are rainbow trout that leave their birth rivers for the Pacific Ocean to feast and mature, returning one to three years later to spawn, much like salmon. Anglers prize their size, strength, and stunning beauty. While there are “steelhead” populations throughout the Great Lakes region, those fish were introduced and are not managed as a native species. The states and provinces that host native steelhead—California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska—are all facing varying levels of poor returns in recent years due to a host of potential factors, from warming ocean conditions and acidification; enormous hatchery stocking programs in Japan, Russia, and the U.S.; increasing predator populations; dams; harvest; and more. Because these fish vanish into the vast North Pacific a year after birth to follow highly varied life histories, they’re considered one of the more difficult animals on Earth to study—making it almost anyone’s guess what the problem is. But that doesn’t stop people from guessing.

Ted McManus is a retired Washington Coast fishing guide with more than 50 years of experience. He saw those rivers in the glory days before all the people and pressure and has photos of mythical 30-pound steelhead to prove it. He and his friends, along with many others like them, feel alienated by the rule changes.

“The problem we have is when you close a river down, you’re making restrictions against different groups of people for one group,” McManus told MeatEater. “Of course, law has nothing to do with being fair, but they haven’t really thought this out. What about the handicapped people? I mean, hell, I row a boat, and it’s hard for me to get out of the boat and get back in without knocking my heater over or something.”

Guides commonly use driftboats and rafts to great effect for putting clients right next to prime holding lies with indicator rigs, plugs, jigs, or drift gear. WDFW estimates that these changes will cause 50% fewer steelhead to be caught by recreational fishermen this season.

“They missed it. They could come up with other [regulations] but when you start taking one group of fishermen off the river it just doesn’t support credibility,” McManus concluded.

On Jan. 14, a group of guides and anglers towed a parade of driftboats through the city of Forks to protest the rule changes. At the very least, the Olympic Peninsula Guide Association members would like to see concessions for the elderly, youth, and people with disabilities who may struggle to navigate the treacherous shorelines of these rivers. Others promote river-specific policies over a blanket decree. The Quillayute system, for example, is expected to exceed escapement this year, unlike the more grave predictions for the Queets, Chehalis, and others.

A petition demanding WDFW abolish these regulations has gathered 3,600 signatures as of this publication. Blame is flying that Spey-style fly anglers, who fish while wading, ran away with the rulemaking process and got exactly what they wanted while leaving all other user groups in the cold. To be clear, you can still use boats to float and access rivers, but you have to step out before you begin to fish.

Many folks point the fact that several Native tribes continue to gillnet these same rivers for steelhead under their treaty rights. Some tribes, however, have agreed to reduce their take this year in coordination with WDFW.

So, there’s my journalistic due; but this issue is too personal for me to remain objective.

Name a steelheading style, and I’ve done it and enjoyed it. Plunking bait? Yes. Skating dry flies? Yes. Backrowing plugs excites me just as much as swinging streamers. I paid for college gillnetting and seining salmon. But here’s my message to my fellow Washingtonian steelheaders, regardless of technique:

Think you don’t like Washington State’s new regs? Just you wait until the federal government gets involved.

When I was a senior in high school, the Puget Sound steelhead populations were listed under the Endangered Species Act. That 2007 decision came down mere months after I skipped class to catch my first winter-run steelhead in the hallowed Skagit River. Once federal management set in, that fishery didn’t open again for another decade. And the Skagit is one of few that have reopened; the Skykomish, Stillaguamish, Snoqualmie, and many other major Puget Sound streams remain closed.

The Endangered Species Act was designed to function as the iron fist of the federal government hammering down to prevent extinction. It’s famously severe (see spotted owls) but it’s also arguably effective, as we’ve witnessed with species like gray wolves delisted in recent years. While invocation of the act does frequently bring sporting pursuit and adjacent industry to a grinding halt, it also brings a lot more money, clout, and expertise to save a species. Just the threat of listing can serve as an effective deterrent.

The Olympic Peninsula Distinct Population Segment of wild steelhead is one of only four remaining steelhead populations in the Lower 48 not currently listed under the ESA. The other three non-listed populations include the Klamath Mountains Province, Oregon Coast, and Southwest Washington. Certain wild fish advocacy groups have already signaled their plans to petition a more amenable U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the incoming Biden Administration, and it is relatively likely they will succeed. Anglers can expect that an ESA listing would entirely close most, if not all, late winter steelhead fisheries on the coast, likely for many years to come. That would devastate local communities whose economies rely primarily on fishing and logging.

Washington’s regulatory actions are a clear attempt to avoid ESA listing for the coastal steelhead population. A useful allegory would be the coalition of Western states that joined forces with hunters, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, and the energy industry in 2015 to craft rules and regulations to protect greater sage grouse while maintaining traditional practices. Those compromises led the USFWS to rule that sage grouse were “warranted but precluded” from ESA listing—basically an admission that the states are on top of it, so the feds can put their resources elsewhere.

John McMillan is the science director for Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative and a long-time Olympic Peninsula fisheries biologist and angler. Few people on Earth know steelhead better than he does, or are more engaged in saving them.

“In Puget sound it took about two years from the petitioning to reach a decision on a listing. And so, the biggest concern I have right now is how do we avoid a listing?” McMillan told MeatEater. “My hunch is that we need to take emergency steps in the short term to illustrate to the feds that the co-managers are very serious about this. You know, quit managing paycheck to paycheck. Let’s come up with a longer-term plan.”

McMillan believes the new regs won’t solve all our problems, but they may be a step in the right direction.

“I do think it was the right choice, and it’s a hard choice to make, but I think if we didn’t put the fish first this year and we instead tried to maximize our fishing opportunity, that would come at the expense of a future listing. This is one of those cases where the department has done what I think a lot of anglers asked them, which is to take a step before they got listed, rather than just close it. In that context, this is a win for fishing and for the fish, but something needs to be done long-term so we aren’t stuck in this revolving door and anglers and tribes have more certainty.”

All recreational fisheries for native steelhead have been catch-and-release-only for some time now, leaving many anglers to wonder why a no-kill fishery needs to be reined in at all. Here’s why: Most studies have shown that C&R still causes fish mortality, often around 10% for steelhead. However, a WDFW study on the Hoh River indicates anglers on the Washington Coast are catching 144% of the steelhead escapement every year, McMillan said. That means that most fish that make it past the nets and into the rivers get caught at least once, and many of the more aggressive individuals may tangle with humans two, three, or four times. Those effects are likely compounded, perhaps leading to higher mortality rates or lower spawning success. That’s not an insignificant number of fish when run sizes number under a thousand individual returning fish. So, regardless of all the other factors impacting how many fish make it back into the rivers, anglers are catching every single fish in the system almost one and a half times (statistically speaking). That’s the only variable anglers have any actual impact on or control over.

The same could be said for WDFW. The department has little power to regulate tribal harvest under the terms of the 1974 Boldt Decision, which guarantees Natives 50% of the take. But, if run sizes continue to shrink and sportfishermen “take” fewer fish (C&R does legally count as harvest), those terms should compel tribes to scale back too, as some have agreed to do. The federal government would stand on different footing with the nations of the Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Quileute following an ESA listing.

“What I’m trying to do is look at the playing field and say, how do we keep people fishing when the resource is depleted and we have so many humans that are so effective?” McMillan said.

He and other wild steelhead advocates have suggested alternate rules to mitigate angler impacts, such as closing down rivers certain days or weeks, or placing some form of limits on guide days. For example, WDFW creel surveys on the Quillayute system in 2014 found guided anglers in boats caught more than 70% of the steelhead pulled from those rivers that year. It’s also not too hard to envision a future where steelhead are managed more like big game animals, including lottery draws for river access and certain days and rivers closing to non-residents, as some Canadian provinces have employed for steelhead, bull trout, and Atlantic salmon. British Columbia has already banned fishing from boats on many of its big, premier steelhead rivers like the Bulkley, Babine, and Kispiox. Other leaders I know encourage the personal-choice etiquette to stop fishing after you catch a steelhead, or two steelhead, that day. I believe being a good steward always requires restraint: “Conservation is wise use,” to borrow from Aldo Leopold.

The boat rule is clearly divisive. I’d always rather conservation felt collaborative and nuanced rather than unilateral and inflexible. The steelheading community has always been plagued with in-fighting and these regulations will make that big problem much worse. Still, I hesitate to second-guess state fish and game agencies making Hail-Mary efforts to stave off population collapse. My heart aches for guides and guided anglers and the town of Forks, but I want everyone to recognize the consequences of inaction in the present moment. No fish, no fishing, or both.

As they settle back in to their home rivers, steelhead turn from oceanic chrome to brilliant red and green, the colors of Christmas. They’ve been part of my holiday tradition for some 15 years now and I made the conscious choice to not skip it this year. My long-time metalhead buddy Dustin and I had planned to borrow a driftboat, but instead chose to hike, just like we did in high school. I was pleasantly surprised to brawl with one tough, gorgeous native steelhead. After releasing the buck, I called it quits for that day and headed home after a quick session the next morning. That one fish was all I needed to provide another year of dreams and memories of my favorite fish in my favorite place. I hope his kin are there next year and for many Christmases to come.

Featured image via Dustin Fairbrook.

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