The Ongoing Mismanagement of Washington's Wild Steelhead
The more time I spend learning about the management and intricacies of wild fish management in Washington state, the more it becomes apparent that WDFW and some of the tribes are knowingly managing wild steelhead into extinction. WDFW, like any government agency is complex, bureaucratic and glacially slow to change its management paradigms. That's not to say the agency is all bad, indeed good local biologists, and researchers are the saving grace of the agency. Sadly the leadership of WDFW and their agenda worships at the alter of industrialized supplementation and harvest and is intent to ignore problems with wild steelhead until they are all gone. I'll bet if you asked steelheaders around Washington State fewer than 1 in 10 are satisfied with the current state of affairs. It almost goes without saying, without wild fish, our sport and passion is lost. A short season of fishing for inferior hatchery fish can never replace the opportunity afforded by robust runs of wild steelhead. Washington was once the heart of the steelhead's range, a place with an immense diversity of productive steelhead rivers, unique and locally adapted stocks and the finest steelhead fishing on the planet. Today, 3-5 rivers remain open and fished throughout the season, the rest have passed into lore.
There is no one cause of these declines and many factors including forestry practices, hydroelectric dams, overharvest and hatcheries have contributed around the state. Each river has its own set of unique circumstances and threats, however a major overarching threat to the future of wild steelhead in our state is WDFWs unwillingness to change from the status quo and the insistence of some tribes on harvesting wild steelhead into oblivion.
WDFW recently developed a wild steelhead management plan, in which it details the new, science based management of steelhead which will guide recovery of these magnificent wild fish. Unfortunately, since the plan was adopted almost none of the changes it outlines have been implemented. Cheif among the disappointments is the fact that the state has remained inactive in developing Wild Salmonid Management Zones as outlined in the recovery plan. Since the middle of the last century when industrial scale hatchery supplementation exploded it has been the norm for multiple species of hatchery origin salmonids to be released into nearly every river system in the state. These releases often occur without any means of collecting unharvested returning adults and without proper monitoring of the effects on wild populations. For more than 40 years this practice has led to decreased productivity in wild stocks of salmon and steelhead through genetic introgression, competition with hatchery smolts and a wide range of ecological effects from residualization to disease. By creating Wild Salmonid Management Zones, the department promised to protect a number of high quality river systems from the damaging effects of hatchery supplementation and the attendant harvest pressures, but has yet to take any action to do so. Now almost two years after the development of the plan, we are waiting and growing impatient.
The second problem is that WDFW continues to fold under pressure from certain tribes in allowing egregiously exploitive harvest practices to go unchecked. Particularly bad are the actions of the Quinault Tribe who have continually failed to act responsibly as co-managers, and net thousands of fish annually from declining populations on the Chehalis system, and mine wild steelhead redds to support a harvest motivated wild broodstock program on the Quinault. The tribe is also insistent that the escapement goal for the Queets wild winter steelhead stock should be just over 2000 fish despite the fact that as recently as the 1980s the Queets supported runsizes well in excess of 10,000 fish. The icing on the cake for these abominable fisheries practices was last year when the tribe knowingly released thousands of IHN infected steelhead smolts into the Quinault system, illustrating their complete lack of interest in protecting wild salmonids within their UNAs. A good state management agency would stand up to these sorts of practices and represent the interests of the citizens of the state of Washington. Instead WDFW is complicit in this abuse of our wild salmon and steelhead and the tribes actions go unchecked.
How long will it be until we have a fish management agency that is accountable to the people of Washington? How long will it be until WDFW begins to make management decisions motvated by science and facts on the ground rather than politics and wishful thinking? The agency has thusfar failed spectacularly in its charge to protect and restore wild salmon and steelhead in our state and time is ticking. It is time these issues came to the forefront of our dialogue, these issues transcend just fisherman's concerns and need much broader exposure in the mainstream media. Until the political motives for mismangement of wild salmon and steelhead are exposed fully, these practices will continue unchecked.