WASHINGTON COAST — New restrictions went into effect on Dec.14 for the coastal steelhead fishery after weeks of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife pondering how to handle the fisheries’ continued shortcomings.

The WDFW Commission held a special meeting via Zoom on Dec. 11 to receive public comments on the newly announced restrictions. Approximately 512 people watched the online meeting, and dozens signed up to offer their opinions and remarks.

Tale of four options

WDFW officials held a town hall meeting two weeks prior, on Nov. 24, to explain the current state of the steelhead fishery along the Washington coast and to explain four options they had devised for handling the 2020-2021 season:

• Close the fishery early between Mar. 1, 2021 and Apr. 15, 2021;

• Only allow steelhead fishing on the Quillayute River;

• Apply gear and harvest restrictions;

• Close the fishery statewide to allow the fishery a better chance to rebound.

WDFW Regional Program Manager James Losee

WDFW Regional Program Manager James Losee

The meeting was hosted by WDFW Regional Program Manager James Losee, who spoke on the shortcomings of most steelhead fisheries along the coast, including Willapa Bay and the Willapa River, which has only reached escapement goals a few times in the past 30 years.

Losee leaned toward enacting gear restrictions over the other three options because it would still allow for a widespread fishery while still reaching the four parameters of abundance, productivity, distribution and diversity that he mentioned were necessary to reach escapement goals.

Option 3 chosen

Officials announced on Dec. 8 that they had chosen option 3 of the four proposals that would enact new fishing restrictions for the coastal steelhead fishery. The restrictions include: no fishing from a floating device, use of only a single-point barbless hook, selective gear rules which prohibit the use of bait, and anglers must release all wild rainbow trout. The fishery will also close on Apr. 1, 2021.

“We provided these four potential options and weighed them against these parameters that we were considering, and based on public feedback early the vast majority of folks felt strongly about option 3,” Losee said, “We had zero folks suggest [the] Quillayute River-only option and then [the] early closure [had] some interest in that, but there was also a really strong interest in an option to have an opportunity to encounter late time hatchery fish.”

Losee continued, “so we moved forward with two options [option 3 and 4]: a full closure which provided the greatest confidence we would meet management objectives and then a limited fishery with gear restrictions and harvest restrictions that would provide some fishing opportunity as [an] alternative to a full closure.”

The most challenged restriction has been the prohibition of fishing from a floating device, but Losee mentions that fishing from a floating device is more effective at catching fish, and the ban will lead to additional savings of returning steelhead.

“Based on measured data in the Hoh River, anglers are much more effective from a boat than the shore,” Losee said. “There [are] quantitative values here that we can use as actual modeled estimates of savings with moving anglers from a boat to the shore.”

Public offers mixed response

When public comment opened during the commission meeting, one of the more prominent voices came from Jason Lake of Ocean Park, who spoke as a commercial fisherman, avid steelhead fisherman and conservationist.

“I wonder why we aren’t also protecting the redds of the wild salmon that are already present in all these rivers we are talking about today?” Lake said. “Boat anchors, oars, jet pumps and wading damages these pristine spawning beds of the Olympic Peninsula and coast. We are all trying to rebuild the true wild runs of these salmon and steelhead.”

He continued, “by allowing these destructive devices to operate in the rivers [it] makes our conservation goals run backwards in the rebuilding and conservation of these mixed wild stocks that are currently present in all the rivers we are discussing today. Now for enforcement, how is [WDFW] going to fund so many officers to properly enforce these rules? I don’t believe they can; there aren’t enough of our hardworking officers to go around.”

On the other side of the debate, some feel like there is a disconnect between state and tribal officials about tribal co-managed impacts causing a more significant effect on native runs.

“The burden of conservation seems to be born primarily on sport anglers rather than the tribes in that we are fishing artificial lures and that we are fishing single-point barbless hooks,” Rob Larsen said. “We are not keeping wild fish [and] I realize that there is an impact because we handle them, but it seems like sportsmen are having to take a disproportionate share of the burden of conservation. It seems like we need to shift that to be equal with our co-managers.”

Not all commenters were against the new restrictions, including many who praised the decision of WDFW officials, such as Nick Hendrickson, who was also a bit skeptical.

“I understand that managing a steelhead fishery is incredibly difficult across the state, and now more than ever, we need to be creative,” he said. “New regulations like this no fishing from a floating device that can limit angler impacts while avoiding full river closures are important, but with that, it’s important that WDFW is using sound evidence to support their decisions.”

Other commenters spoke on the economic impacts of the restrictions, including Ravae O’Leary of Forks, who expects her small town to see a $1 million shortfall.

“For a lot of rural coastal communities, a large portion of the winter business economy is derived from the steelhead season with anglers staying in lodging, buying gas, purchasing food and supplies, and some even obtaining a guide service,” she said. “The economic impact of using an untested and extreme management tool on a system meeting escapement is going to, on the bare surface, equate to a million dollars in direct unnecessary revenue loss for the Forks community.”

She continued, “many in the industries that will be affected are already reeling from covid-19 impacts, and truthfully many are losing hope of continuing to fight to keep their businesses open.”

WDFW Commissioner Larry Carpenter noted at the beginning of the meeting that all responses were going to be documented and considered. The commission and officials did not answer questions either but offered to answer any emailed to them.

The new regulations are expected to run through at least the rest of the 2020-2021 coastal steelhead fishery.

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