OUTDOORS: Steelheaders plan boat rally against new rules in Forks

TRAILERED DRIFT BOATS are a common sight in Forks during the winter time as anglers visit the West End for the chance to land and take a picture with a prized steelhead.

Emergency rule changes that among other things restrict steelhead angling from a floating device on most coastal rivers went into effect Dec. 14, prime time for hatchery steelhead.

To protest the rule changes, particularly the no fishing from a floating device rule, the Olympic Peninsula Guides Association is coordinating a boat rally today from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the parking lot of Forks Outfitters, 950 S. Forks Ave. in Forks, with anglers encouraged to bring their boats.

OPGA guides understand that conservation measures are needed to preserve wild steelhead and believe there are positive solutions that support conservation without going to the extreme measure of curtailing fishing from a floating device.

The group also advocates a return to system-by-system management of coastal rivers as “taking into account the unique issues of each river is the only way to effectively manage these steelhead fisheries.”

This is likely the most effective method of protesting the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision, as the Quillayute River system is forecast to exceed escapement goals by more than 3,300 wild steelhead, while other rivers, particularly the Chehalis, are in much more dire condition.

Forks guides submitted comments to the state’s Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee chaired by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim on Tuesday.

Van De Wege called the fishing from a boat rule “unfair and foolish” in comments to Peninsula Daily News ahead of the opening of the legislative session.

OPGA vice president Ryan Bullock of Forks said the move to blanket management resulted in “some nonsensical regulations.”

“The department has historically employed a river-by-river approach to management and emergency regulations, tailoring its regulations to specific conditions, conservation needs and forecast for each management unit,” Bullock said. “In contrast this season, the department has employed its emergency regulations uniformally across the entire coast, notwithstanding significant differences in conservation needs and angling conditions. This approach results in some nonsensical regulations.”

Forks guide Bill Meyer said the economic fallout of the rule changes “were a devastating blow to us.”

He said that a survey of 49 coastal guides estimated a loss of $1.4 million in guiding revenue, including $280,000 in deposits that have been returned for canceled trips.

“It’s not just guides who are impacted either. Our clients stay in motels and bed and breakfasts, eat at local restaurants, buy lunches and purchase gas,” Meyer said.

Meyer also believes the timing of the rule changes, intended to protect wild steelhead that typically return in larger numbers in late February and March, was “unnecessary and ineffective” because of the minimal conservation benefit to wild stocks.

Hatchery runs are best from December through mid-January.

“This all comes on top of COVID, which caused a shutdown of all fishing from mid-March through early May,” Meyer said. “Forks fishing guides also were not included in the $300 million for aquaculture provided through the [federal] CARES Act.

“We’ve supported regulations even when they hurt our business. Losing out on business again is a doubly-hard pill to swallow.”

Cary Hoffman of the Washington State Guides Association later put forth re-opening boat fishing on the Quilayute, Sol Duc, Calawah, Bogachiel and Dickey rivers, liberalizing gear restrictions through April, while also following similar methods farther south on the Hoh and Wynoochee rivers.

Van De Wege asked the Fish and Wildlife employees on the call for a rapid response to such a reversal.

There were speakers who applauded the restrictions, chief among them Greg Topf of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, who warned of the sword hanging above all of this discussion, a potential Endangered Species Act listing of coastal wild steelhead.

Coastal steelhead restrictions also are on the agenda for an 8 a.m. Friday meeting of the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee under new chair Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles.

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Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected] peninsuladaily news.com.

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