In a recent press release WDFW identified ways it will seek to alleviate its massive budget shortfall. Among the options listed was closing a number of hatcheries, reducing enforcement, and...here's the killer, closing Puget Sound tributaries for steelhead fishing. Already opportunities to fish for steelhead in Puget Sound rivers have been cut sharply. Last year all rivers closed mid-February to protect low numbers of wild steelhead, and this year the same is expected. I'm not sure how they could possibly limit steelhead fishing any further short of closing the rivers for the entire winter. It is clear that steelhead in Puget Sound are in trouble, but does anyone actually believe sport fishing is to blame? Certainly incidental CnR mortality on wild puget sound steelhead is undesirable, but any biologist at WDFW or NMFS will tell you, poor marine survival is really whats limiting Puget Sound steelhead.
The legacy of historic habitat degradation and overharvest remains, but the habitat has been slowly recovering from the rapacious logging practices of the 60s, 70s and 80s and harvest of wild steelhead hasn't been allowed any where in the sound in almost a decade. C n R opportunities continue to disappear at an alarming rate and WDFW doesn't seem inclined to do anything but close sport fishing. Hatcheries continue to dump millions of fish into the sound annually, with almost no return. Last year a state auditor's report revealed that the average puget sound blackmouth costs taxpayers 780 dollars and more hatchery fish are released in the Elwha every year than on the ENTIRE Oregon Coast. All that fisheries wellfare is what's bankrupting our state fisheries management agency and it isn't working, period. Monitoring efforts are a joke, with index reach methodology that hasnt been calibrated since the 1970s and almost no effort to enumerate parr or smolt production. WDFW doesn't put confidence intervals around their abundance estimates, but if they did it would quickly reveal the fact that they have almost no idea whats going on. The entire Skykomish system wasn't even surveyed in 2007, 2008 and 2009 because of poor visibility. Meanwhile, wild fish continue to decline and there has been no comprehensive effort to understand survival in the marine environment or to what extent hatcheries are contributing to the problems in the sound. If we hope to help steelhead recover in the sound, the first step is actually monitoring populations, if that comes at the expense of wasteful hatchery programs, so be it.
Even more disappointing is the fact that the state promised to establish Wild Salmonid Management Areas in the Statewide Steelhead Management plan, to date they have yet to take any action. Guess what, wild fish cost nothing to produce. They are a part of the natural wealth of our region, a gift from 7000 years of evolution. WDFW seems to believe that fisheries cannot exist without harvest opportunity and it is time for that paradigm to change. The future of wild fish depends on change, and given the current budget woes, now is the time to redefine the mission of our outdated fish management in Washington.