NORTH OLYMPIC PENINSULA steelhead stocks are faring better at reaching escapement goals than counterpart streams in the Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay and Chehalis rivers, but the popular fishery is likely to be further restricted this season and in coming years.
Preliminary state forecasts predict wild steelhead returns this winter will not come close to escapement goals on several systems, and poor ocean conditions that influenced those predictions also are likely to constrain 2022 and 2023 returners.
“These are probably conservative estimates, in terms of ocean conditions; they are really supporting the idea that not only are forecasts looking poor for next year, but we are probably going to see this in subsequent years,” said James Losee, state Department of Fish and Wildlife regional program manager for the Coast and Puget Sound region, during a Zoom meeting with anglers last week.
The Quillayute River System (Quillayute, Bogachiel, Calawah, Sol Duc and Dickey rivers) is forecast to have 9,276 wild steelhead return with a goal of 5,900 steelhead, putting the system 3,376 fish above the escapement goal. That’s a plus but still off average returns in previous seasons.
The Hoh River has a forecast of 2,903 wild steelhead and an escapement goal of 2,240, putting the river 503 wild steelhead above escapement, and the Quinault River is 125 wild steelhead above escapement.
On the negative side of the fish ledger: the Queets/Clearwater rivers are predicted to be 637 wild steelhead short of those rivers’ escapement goals; the Chehalis River is down 2,000 fish; the Humptulips has an escapement gap of 534; and the Willapa 344.
Four potential management options based on four parameters — abundance, productivity, distribution and diversity — were presented during a Zoom meeting last week.
The first option would provide an early closure of steelhead fishing beginning March 1.
“A March 1 closure would allow for a maximum effort on the early-timed hatchery program and protect the peak of the wild run,” Losee said.
There are some cons to this scenario as it limits harvest of late-returning hatchery steelhead and could see more anglers fishing early runs.
“A shift in [angler] effort. If we close this late period of the run, there’s a question about where those anglers go,” Losee said. “And if they move into this early period of the run, this could have an effect on spatial distribution, diversity and productivity as we think that these early fish in some years represent higher productivity than at other times in the run.”
The second option would close steelhead fishing on all coastal rivers except the Quillayute and its tributaries.
This move would protect the steelhead stocks at highest risk such as the Chehalis but likely would massively degrade the fishing experience on West End rivers by increasing angler effort.
“This would represent one of very few fisheries to target steelhead in the state of Washington, so that’s a challenge,” Losee said. “We don’t know if people would hang up their fishing rods or all decide that the Quillayute is the place.”
Losee said tribal co-managers, specifically the Quileute Tribe, have expressed concerns about this option.
Abundance-wise, the state believes that box could be checked under this option.
“We could model four times as many anglers on the Quillayute, and we are confident we would meet that escapement goal, but there is uncertainty about how that would affect productivity, distribution and diversity on that river because it is something that we have not tried before.”
The third option would put in added gear restrictions on steelhead rivers, including a coast-wide bait restriction, no fishing from a floating device in select waters and the release of rainbow trout.
The Hoh River, which allows drift boat fishing on certain stretches, likely would be affected by this option.
“Encounters from the community that fishes from a floating device in some years and some months is greater than five times that from folks who are getting out of their boats and fishing from the banks,” Losee said of the Hoh River.
Pros presented include maximizing time on the water, consistent protection of steelhead in all areas, times and at all life cycles and allowing for harvest of both early and late-timed hatchery steelhead.
This option would provide enforcement challenges to already spread-thin Fish and Wildlife Police units and would end some fishing styles.
Option four is effectively the nuclear option, closing down all coastal rivers to all steelhead fishing through April 15.
This would provide maximum protection for wild steelhead but at a significant cost to anglers, especially those targeting rivers that are reaching escapement goals such as the Quillayute River.
Losee even included a Seattle Times article in his presentation that pointed out some of the biggest steelhead conservation advocates would be left out in the cold without the ability to fish.
Fish and Wildlife is expected to meet with tribal co-managers to decide which option or combination of options to pursue with a decision likely to be announced soon.
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected].