Saving Wild Steelhead and Sportfishing

Share:Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone

Saving Wild Steelhead & Sport Fishing


In a nutshell:

The tribes in Washington State own the fishery hands down not going to change that. If we stop all hatchery production the tribes will fish on the remaining wild steelhead even more than they do now. This will lead to closures and the end of public sports fishing. By all of us working together with the newest technology “pit tags and supplemental brood stocking programs” on river systems under the tribal commercial fishery or rivers with poor performing fish passages there is hope for those Wild steelhead runs and the future of Sport fishing.

The future of wild steelhead and salmon lies in the hands of sport fishermen, we simply care for them the most and in turn we are the most un organized of any user group. The introduction of wild gene bank Rivers is a huge step in the right direction and gene banks should be used as such to revitalize poor returning systems within their geographical areas, or to balance the impact from commercial angling. History has proven that commercial angling, habitat blockages and poor hatchery practice will destroy not only wild fish runs but sportfishing as a way of life.

Is there hope for steelhead angling?

From my first self-caught wild steelhead on the Methow river at age 13 on a muddler I had a feeling that wild steelhead would forge my life. Sports fishermen have commonly promoted and preached the virtues of saving wild salmon and steelhead since the early 80’s. Now we (sportsmen/special interest groups) are systematically killing the sport fishing industry/lifestyle, one of the few industries in the US that has an ecologically tiny footprint. Fishermen have rallied to save the wild steelhead of Washington so dear to them, only to propagate their own demise through some special interest groups. Some groups want to see no sport fishing at all and support a total commercial fishing platform.

Problems facing the recovery of wild steelhead and sportfishing:

-The entire wild fish movement is held hostage by a government entity that seems to manage the fishermen and NOT the fish.

-Tribal fishermen whom have the real power and own 50% of the harvestable amount have a co-management position and first position geographically in our rivers, use non selective gill nets; they actually own the fishery by law and everyone else has the privilege to fish.

-The fracturing of the sports fishing community, by special interest groups.  They gather donations to form policy and regulation, forcing the hand of the government regulators. There needs to be diplomacy amongst the sports fishermen, WDFW the Washington State Tribes and the special interest groups as a whole to accomplish the goal of wild fish survival and the continuation of sport fishing for them.

-Science used to form commercial quotas, policy or regulation can be downright incorrect or financially supported to prove whatever they want to prove. Some science is purely outdated and taken into present day context.

Steelheading as a culture:

Steelhead fishing is a culture, with a following of highly passionate people whom all pretty much love them more than any other creature on earth. The cult purest steelheader will passionately pursue alternate involvement in their pursuit towards everything steelhead. We all go through these changes in life brought on by our first introduction to the icon of the North West and later the ensuing psychosis of steelhead angling. Preservation of wild steelhead is highly agreed upon; the act of volunteering for riparian habitat projects, stream restoration, river stewards or financial support is common and has positively structured the lives of many people. The act of fly fishing is but one of the many methods pursued by enthusiasts. As a terminal patient to the cult of steelheaders my involvement has covered every aspect of the not so secret society of the steelhead Junkie. In the ‘80’s our biggest fight was for habitat recovery and protection and the support of catch and release. In the 90’s it was logging regulation hidden behind the spotted owl ESA listing.  We as a sport fishing community have undergone a transformation from harvesters (the problem) to protectors of our beloved steelhead.

By 1995 after about 10 years the C&R movement has gained momentum and became successful and many habitat issues regulated, thus improving habitat for today. These features have been the sportsmen greatest factor in retaining/recovering wild runs of steelhead in Washington State.

At 35 years of age I had gone through many of the steps within the steelheader’s cult. With a successful but cost prohibited attempt into the manufacturing side of steelhead spey fishing lines, I made a final push over the edge into the life of being a steelhead guide, leaving behind the high pay high stressed lifestyle of big city heavy construction.  Since becoming a guide and fishing 200 plus days a year for 15 years coupled with the prior experiences in environmental and regulatory development the school of hard knocks has shined a spotlight light on protecting wild steelhead and those issues at hand, it’s pretty simple really “don’t kill them” they will take care of themselves given the habitat.

The Science and hatcheries:

Science in general is proven opinion with a college degree behind it; some fisheries science can be directed to say what any organization wants it to say. Biologists that are supported by hatcheries, commercial fishing groups, land development groups and conservation organizations can scientifically prove or dis prove what their supporters want them to. Some biologist’s findings are often played out on a political card table in trade for crab quotas or other commercial entities.

Calculating run size is a compounded guess at best. With co-management, quotas are set by mathematical extrapolation and often involve other countries and states having a stake in by-catch:

-Total run size (a guess).

-Escapement: Needed for survival but an arbitrary number pulled from a hat in the 60’s, actually outdated science from commercial fishing control pre –Boldt decision and has never been changed.

-Harvestable number: Another guess at best as commercial anglers support overharvest and escapement is what’s left.

-Sports men get half of harvestable total.

The sportsmen’s half, which even in their harvest years, never amounted to a fair share in any co managed rivers.

Then to top it off the commercials are not on an actual “quota” like a number there on a “day’s quota” with gill nets a day’s quota is simply a guideline not an actual number. Science/biological findings have a big play in all of this and are consistently wrong with use of mathematical extrapolation. With all this grey area in the management of fisheries it’s no wonder that the run sizes are slipping.

The disdain of hatchery systems is nothing new to steelhead fly fishermen. Back in the day we hated them because of the fishing pressure and ethics of the anglers they attracted. We would fish many other locations for our fish en route to the hatchery during summer months and again in November and December. Back then the wild fish numbers as per our catch rate was often greater than the targeted hatchery fish. Even today the numbers of hatchery fish never overwhelm our wild fish catch on both the Olympic Peninsula and Columbia River tributaries. The idea that wild fish are more aggressive towards flies and artificial lures, I know is ultimately true and this in itself is what makes them the most attractive. Simple understanding of natural selection can tell us that. Non-biters made it to the hatchery rack and then spawned by hatchery employees, biters got conked, pretty simple. These being primarily the highly diluted and domesticated Chambers creek hatchery fish, an undersized subspecies have been politically and financially supported by WDFW and Commercial anglers for way too long.

Supplemental Brood Stocking:

Science stating hatchery fish are detrimental to a wild steelhead population has been used as a leverage point by special interest groups in legal battles to remove hatchery programs from rivers where wild fish exist. These groups cite that when a wild and hatchery fish spawn, their offspring exhibits reduced fitness. They state that genes introduced into a wild population from mixed hatchery/wild spawning harm the population to a point that causes its decline.

While data exists proving that domestication of steelhead, in a classic hatchery environment dilutes genes, recent studies have called into question the notion that all hatcheries and hatchery fish are harming the wild populations they interact with. The recent increase in Snake River fall Chinook, and Snake River coho’s recovery from an extinct classification to a modest run of a few thousand has been attributed in part to re-colonization of historic spawning areas by salmon raised in hatcheries ran by the Nez Pierce tribe. These hatcheries are managed to restore wild runs, instead of producing numbers of homogenized and harvestable fish. Instead of being coddled from egg to smolt, to maintain maximum output, the Nez Piece’s hatchery salmon are subject to an upbringing more similar to life in a wild river. In turn, these fish are not removed from the system near the hatchery to limit their interaction with wild fish, they are instead allowed to spawn in river, with the hatchery only taking a small percentage of the return to maintain egg and milt supply for the upcoming year.

Perhaps hatcheries could be used as a tool for speeding up the restoration of our rivers. A shift in the way state hatcheries were run would have to take place. The ultimate goal of the hatchery would need to change from delivering short-term keep-able fish, to adding to total recruitment of wild spanners. If successful bloodstock programs such as the Nez Piece’s and others throughout the North West can be replicated on a larger scale for steelhead, we as anglers, and conservationists, would benefit.


Purely by Accident:

The use of Chambers creek fish being an early returning and hence early spawning steelhead has separated the hatchery genes from infesting the mid and late winter wild stocks, while diluting the early run of wild winter steelhead. It also has provided a catchable steelhead for the tribe and they in turn allowed the later run to escape by reducing their days on the river during February, March and April by 50% and more. I see this as the reasons those months are so much better than the prior.

A blanket statement that hatcheries are bad in my opinion is not true. Take for instance the upper Columbia steelhead tributaries were steelhead run past hundreds of tribal nets, sportfishing boats and numerous hydroelectric dams. The tribs that have good habitat have been wildly successful in the return of “supplemental broodstocks” and “true wild steelhead” since the federal broodstock program started. I think they have set the bar for future recovery of depleted wild steelhead runs in many locations. The heavy use of pit tags has given them priceless information. I can only hope that this form of recovery will be adopted for some of the troubled runs of former fame within the Puget Sound region. This is not just from scientific study although I have seen them in support of such, but my observance from many days on the water in the area.

There is new technology in the operation of hatcheries, from habitat in rearing raceways that are flowing like rivers to exposure to predation. While some of the old ideals still work the best ie: Supplemental Broodstock with indigenous wild fish is not a new concept and will work managed properly. Brood stocking had a bad name in the past from miss use, and on a personal level I have been disgusted with some of the local Puget Sound project’s gone awry under state management ie; Green River enhancement project. This option is where we must be careful and diplomatic with the user groups federally mandated to be in control of fishing rights. We want them to utilize the best hatchery technology available. Remember they (tribes) own it not us and fighting against them is futile, we might as well support what works best.

Conservation groups;

Some of the special interest groups attacking the idea of hatcheries often also attack other user groups in the sport fishing community. Plying for blanket regulation supporting their style of angling over others is fracturing the sport fishing community/industry. They do this with catch phrases like “refuge” and portray the fishery as “overcrowded.” They often wave around sound science from those outdated and inferior hatcheries systems. Some of their claims are true but are too drastic for statewide application. They roll with this platform and in reality it gains donation dollars allowing them to fight in court gaining more dollars for their cause, all the while the real issue goes un-changed and rivers get closed and stay closed.

Special interest groups have since turned much attention to the systems in Washington State that are healthiest, of which I agree, to “save what’s easiest to save first”. But many of the Olympic Peninsula rivers that are under there regulative scrutiny already have what they ask for, actual refuge water often at fifty percent of the rivers length equating to miles of stream bed unfishable by everyone. Many of these Peninsula area rivers have gear restriction already in place, pre-dating the conservation groups regulatory attempts; the regulation suggestions are again a blanket regulation and some clearly imposed without any knowledge of the gradient/geography within the rivers. This only divides the statewide sportfishing community and pits local municipality, anglers and guides against each other.

A divided fishing community is what led to the fifty percent judge Boldt decision and the mess we have in Washington State right now. The Boldt decision divided the harvestable quota between commercial fishing tribes and Washington state sports fishermen at 50/50. It also divided the management of all wildlife between the state WDFW and the tribes in Washington. The Federal Government will always side on the tribal side of conflicting issues giving them the real power to legislate action.

A divided sport fishing community is in no way a viable solution to increasing wild stocks fact it will most likely lead to poor etiquette on the river and eventually regulation closing fisheries. (WDFW manages people and if people can’t get along they will close it) just as fast as if there were none left to catch.

Anything leading to the closure of fishing is the worst case scenario and I sometimes think that some special interest groups want to close them. Take the Skagit and other Puget Sound rivers for example: their closure has led to increased pressure on healthy stocks elsewhere in the state. It has led to a conservation group study of the Skagit steelhead resulting in privatized angling on public water, which may never lead to it opening. Closures also led to the snowball effect of regulation suggestion by people that didn’t have an interest in the Olympic Peninsula prior to the closing of the Skagit and the Puget Sound rivers.

The suggestion that the sport fishing is having a negative effect on the survival of wild steelhead is counterproductive. In the BIG picture, without a sport fishing industry who would even care if steelhead survived? Some that say we should stop fishing to protect the fish. Without Steelhead fishing we would lose a tradition founded in the great North West and a heritage formed over hundreds of years in family tradition passed from fathers to son’s and beyond. The loss of Steelhead sportfishing would leave the wolf to guard the hen house. Much like some of our European neighbors where commercials are the only people catching their fish, and only the wealthiest get to fish by owning water via privatized fishing. The sports fishing community with their difference in angling style is an easy target by some local and non-local conservation groups. I wish that they would be more careful at what they ask for they may just get it and we will have fished for steelhead for the last time.

That said, I believe conservation groups can help to organize sportfishing and have a hand on the governing better than ever before. In a perfect world, one without commercial angling controlling the fishery, the anti-hatchery special interest groups would be spot on and would have much more relevance in the conservation of wild steelhead as a whole.

Puget Sound:

Steelhead fishing has been lost in Puget Sound and it started in the early 80”s at the Nisqually and working its way north to the Skagit. Eerily similar the progression of Net Pen Farming, I am no biologist but am a realist and in simple terms, “how could we be so blind to this all these years”. This is totally my opinion and has been thrown away many times by WDFW, special interest groups, and State officials all of whom may be in the money pot there with the aqua culture industry. Although the science exists that the fish farming industry has been very detrimental to wild stocks everywhere in the world Washington has seemed to turn a blind eye.

The Skagit is one of Washington’s gems of a steelhead river and the biggest attraction to the sport, but its closed and no idea of being opened even though escapement numbers are looking better. This in itself is a slap in the face to sports fishermen, how can such a great piece of water that supports numerous bull trout (ESA listed nearly everywhere else in the state) and salmon fisheries be in such dire strait when it comes to steelhead. I know little of the politics involved there, but from the grapevine, it appears to be loved to the extent of privatized fishing/study on public water.  I have seen studies done on smolt migration and they seem to disappear in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Probably some answer there the size of a battle ship but kept hidden while we fight over hatcheries or till we all have forgotten about the Puget Sound steelhead.

Until Washington State and its sports fishers make the effort to recognize the value of sports fishing as an industry, a whole industry from manufacturing to services, to tax revenue and visitor spending we stand a slim chance at gaining real effective governmental support. The way of life we all take for granted here in the northwest is under attack from within. Without some real organization and acceptance of other user groups in the community the situation will remain unmanageable.

The steelhead runs from the past can rebound they are tougher than most of us realize; sports fishermen just need to work together as one unified voice campaigning for recovery. I feel starting with restrictive gear openings (barbless no bait) on wild steelhead in rivers of Puget Sound would do the state wild fish populations some good. This would increase the viability of the resource by boosting the local economies and gain recognition of the value we all place on wild steelhead. Without the recognition of value by local communities the steelhead is just another species to go away. The lack of recent turnout at the Occupy Skagit meeting is proof that the fishing community is at a stalemate with the fishing closure and may soon be forgot. We will soon have a chance to voice an opinion at commission meetings about regulation of fisheries. Since license sales are what WDFW really cares about if we take a stand and say we won’t buy any licenses without the Skagit opening they may listen. I know I could go all summer without buying a license, if half the fishing public did that sales would plummet and there would be WDFW panic.

What we do as sportsmen in Washington state has relevance and the next ten years will decide if wild steelhead and public sport fishing for them will survive.


Thank you,

Jeff Brazda