PAT NEAL: A short history of fishing laws

In last week’s episode, we were exploring a bizarre bit of bureaucratic bungling where the state of Washington demands that we purchase our new fishing license on April 1, but does not come out with the fishing laws until the end of June or maybe sometime in July — depending on factors not available at this time.

Given the fact that fishing violations can involve fines of up to $5,000, forfeiture of fishing gear, fishing boat and the truck that you towed all that stuff around with, many people have simply quit fishing in Washington altogether because it’s too complicated, expensive and downright dangerous.

Who could blame them?

The fishing laws in Washington are so complicated that almost no one can understand them.

This was not always the case.

The kings of England and Scotland started making fishing laws back in the Middle Ages.

Generally speaking, the fishing was much better in the Middle Ages than it is today. The fishing laws were much simpler, although violations could involve a more severe punishment.

For example, in 1318, Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, declared that a person convicted of poaching salmon on a royal estate for the second time could be put to death.

King Edward III of England made it illegal to use salmon for pig feed.

In the 1100s, Richard the Lionheart may have come up with our oldest fishing law.

During Richard’s reign, described by some historians as an “orgy of medieval savagery,” it became illegal to block a salmon stream.

Flash forward to our modern world of the future, where we have spent the last century building dams with no fish passage in our state.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are more than 19,000 barriers stopping fish passage.

Of these, there are approximately 2,000 culverts that impede fish.

In 2001, the Treaty Tribes of Washington sued the state of Washington over the culverts that were blocking 1,000 miles of streams — ultimately winning a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2018, giving Washington until 2030 to fix its culverts.

That is happening now with the passage of the Infrastructure, Investments and Jobs Act of 2021 that provides up to $5 billion for a nationwide effort to eliminate fish passage barriers.

These are defined as anything that hinders fish from moving upstream or down. That could include a dam, culvert or smolt trap.

Every spring our streams are blocked by smolt traps that catch young salmon and steelhead migrating downstream out to sea. Smolt traps can be a valid method of gathering data, but not if they block the entire stream.

In the spring, steelhead and sea-run cutthroat migrate up our creeks to spawn, but they can’t if the stream is blocked by a smolt trap.

When fish are stuck below a smolt trap, they are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators — including people who know that fishing in front of a smolt trap can be awesome.

Steelhead that migrated upstream before the smolt trap was installed can’t get back downstream once the smolt trap blocks the creek.

Steelhead do not die like salmon after they spawn.

Steelhead go back downstream to the ocean so they can come back and spawn again — unless there’s a smolt trap. Fishing above a smolt trap can be awesome.

Meanwhile, the young salmon, steelhead and cutthroat caught in the traps are in danger of floods, predators and rough handling during the most vulnerable time in their lives, when they miraculously transition from fresh to salt water.

Where’s Richard the Lionheart when you need him?

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected]

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