Washington State imposes new emergency coastal steelhead fishery regs
December 24, 2020
Recent declines in salmon and steelhead survival across the Pacific Basin have been documented since approximately 2013 and affecting all stocks in dammed and undammed systems. An ocean "dead zone," or hypoxic, warm water mass, heavy with algae blooms, plays a significant role in the ocean rearing component of these fishes' life history.
Declines in winter steelhead populations spurred a need for emergency adaptive management among the coastal fisheries in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Fishery managers forecast the 2021 steelhead return up to 2,000 fish below escapement (returning adults surviving fisheries to reach the spawning grounds) goals in many of the coastal rivers.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) proposed alternatives via town hall meetings to the general public to ensure abundance, productivity, distribution, and genetic diversity. Four factors are critical to sustainable wild steelhead populations. To adequately achieve these four factors, the following alternatives were considered.
1) Early closure of steelhead fisheries coast-wide.
2) Complete closure of all coastal steelhead fisheries except the Quillayute River and its tributaries, where escapement goals are expected to be met.
3) Imposing a combination of bait and gear restrictions, early closure, and requiring the release of all rainbow trout (rainbow/steelhead under 20 inches in length).
4) Coast-wide closure of all winter steelhead fisheries.
Among the alternatives, 3 and 4 are thought to achieve all four critical factors; however, a complete closure under alternative 4 would restrict anglers from harvesting hatchery fish, which is not ideal for preserving the integrity of wild fish genetics.
Alternative 3 still provides a coastal fishery and reduces potential stress and harm to wild fish through bait and gear restrictions. More complex regulations make law enforcement equally challenging, yet, balancing the protection of fishes with angler opportunity to achieve all goals is a mission requirement for WDFW.
During a town hall meeting on November 24th, several public advocates approved of alternative 4. This was countered with a concern that eliminating angling opportunities could reduce constituency advocation and conservation dollars needed to support the WDFW and coastal resources in the future. Conversely, local economic impacts from a reduction in tourism-related to fishery closures were considered a con for alternative 4. Overall, the public supported alternative 3, in alignment with WDFW's recommendations.
A final town hall was held on December 11th where the WDFW Fish and Wildlife Commission presented the regulation change in favor of alternative 3 and collected final public comment. Specifically, new coastal steelhead fishery regulations require single-point, barbless hooks, selective gear with bait prohibited, no fishing from a "floating device" (e.g., raft, boat, float tube, inflatable pontoon), an April 1st early closure, and mandatory release of all rainbow trout.
The new regulations, which take effect on December 14th, are supported by past harvest and spawning survey data.