WDFW DIRECTOR FLOATS THE IDEA AS BUDGET CRUNCH, ESA LISTING CATCH UP TO FISHERY
‘Costs are quickly beginning to outweigh the benefits they provide,’ says spokesman.
OLYMPIA–It is a birthright for we Puget Sound anglers – drifting bait in mountain-born streams for winter- and summer-runs like our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers before us – an important fishery for local guides and tackle shops, and an economic boost for sleepy river towns, but the region’s steelhead program is being eyed for elimination.
The staggering news came out of a meeting 100 miles safely removed from the basin.
Citing continuing budget woes where tens of millions of dollars will likely be cut from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s General Fund over the next two years, Director Phil Anderson floated it as one fix.
“We’re talking about things like eliminating steelhead fishing in Puget Sound,” Anderson told a Vancouver audience in late October, according to an article by Columbian outdoor reporter Allen Thomas. “Does that make sense along the coast? Going through a process where you do proportional cuts, you take a little bit out of every place, you can only do that so much to where you get to a point you’re not doing anything very well.”
If it comes to pass, the end on some waters could come as soon as after the smolts released this past spring get picked off during 2011-12’s fishery, according to an agency spokesman.
For good measure, Anderson added that a platoon of enforcement officers, up to 11 hatcheries and numerous access sites are also on the chopping block, Thomas reported.
It’s somewhat puzzling why Anderson would push such draconian measures forward before a legislative session where the agency conceivably needs sportsman and -woman support for lawmakers to pass license and other fee increases to stabilize its budget as well as again possibly fend off merging WDFW with other departments.
True, it’s clear Anderson is desperately trying to get across just how dire WDFW’s financial situation is – at the same time as he’s probably probing to see what ideas would draw the fewest pitchfork-and-torch-bearing anglers to his headquarters in Olympia.
But even as staffers down the chain of command say reduction rather than wholesale elimination is more probable, it does raise a deeper question: What is the thinking behind why steelheading on storied Pugetropolis rivers such as the Sky, Stilly and Skagit is expendable in the first place?
THERE ARE SEVERAL OBVIOUS REASONS, for starters.
WDFW spokesman Craig Bartlett points to declining wild steelhead populations, and low returns and catches of hatchery fish. To put it bluntly, despite millions of smolts released annually from hatcheries and increasing protections for native fish, steelheading has collapsed.
In the nearly 50 years since WDFW began collecting catch-card data in 1961, the high mark for Puget Sound winter-runs is the season of 1963-64 when we bonked 88,578. Two years later we nearly matched that while the late 1960s saw a pair of 79,000-fish winters.
That’s a whopping 332,793 steelies on two-fish-a-day/30-a-year punchcards over four winters.
But ever since, the trend has been relentlessly downhill. Even the best years the past two decades haven’t been as bad as the worst years of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
The nadir – so far – is the winter of 2008-09, when only 3,361 were kept.
Last winter saw a slight uptick, and there’s optimism about this season, but added together, the last 10 seasons still don’t top ’63-64.
It’s almost mind-boggling that Dad and Gramps brought home 88,000-plus steelhead with nothing but drift-fishing gear like Okie Drifters and Sammy Specials, Spin-N-Glos for plunking and Dardevle spoons to break up the monotony, so how did they do it?
They pounded the Skagit, carding 21,000, as well as fished 10,500 out of the Green, 8,800 from the Puyallup and 6,000 from both the Skykomish and Stillaguamish, according to catch-record manager Eric Kraig.
True, they could keep wild fish back in the day, but that’s been forbidden since the early 2000s. And still last winter’s native returns were extraordinarily low – less than 2,000 on the Snohomish, about 4,000 on the Skagit and just 435 on the Green, according to unofficial state figures posted online before tribal managers agreed with the data. Escapement goals for those streams are 6,500, 6,000 and 2,020, respectively.
Poor ocean feeding conditions since 1988 are blamed for the low runs these days.
On one system, basically one out of every 350 hatchery smolts has made it back from the Pacific in recent years, according to a biologist.
And that’s actually twice as good as it’s been elsewhere.
“Over the past 10 years (to the Puyallup), it’s been a .15 percent return; in the heyday, it was 8 percent,” says fisheries biologist Mike Scharpf.
It shouldn’t take a state auditor’s report to figure out that those adults are pretty expensive specimens.
BARTLETT SAYS IT’S THE BUDGET CRUNCH that’s primarily leading to a hard look at the steelhead program. He points to the $37 million cut to the General Fund the last two years and says another $10 million to $20 million hack job is possible as the state grapples with a $4.5 billion revenue shortfall (Editor’s note 11-19-2010: That shortfall grew to $5.7 billion, the Seattle Times reported today.)
“Even if the Legislature approves WDFW’s fee proposal, the department will have to make serious reductions in the services it provides to the public,” he warns.
So instead of fisheries, wardens and hatcheries, cut all those back-office staffers and IT guys down in Olympia!, armchair biologists rail online.
But in the words of one manager there, “Thanks to budget cuts, I ain’t got no minions.”
Another source says HQ’s Geek Squad is all of three people.
Other WDFW watchers howl, To hell with managing wolves and the rest of the state’s frou-frou wildlife!
But whether by design or just alphabetic arrangement, WDFW’s new home page shows increasingly what the department’s priorities are rolling back to in these money-tight times: the Conservation tab comes before the Fishing and Hunting buttons.
And therein lies the convergence with steelhead.
“The main reason steelhead fisheries on Puget Sound rivers are on the list of programs under consideration for reduction,” says Bartlett, “is that costs are quickly beginning to outweigh the benefits they provide for the fishing public.”
It’s a stunning statement for those of us who have more Corkies, pink worms, jugs of Fire Cure, rvrfshr spoons and marabou jigs than our wives should ever know about.
But he says since Puget Sound steelhead were listed as threatened in spring 2007, Endangered Species Act requirements have “raised the cost of everything from broodstock collection to trapping operations on those rivers … further stretching the department’s reduced staff and budget.”
Bartlett didn’t have actual cost estimates available, but the first biologist estimates that roughly 20 percent of their own work time is now dedicated solely to dealing with steelhead issues. That’s a fifth of their day, week, month, year that might otherwise be dedicated to salmon, inland and warmwater fisheries and high lakes.
Instead, it’s now spent in all-day meetings, negotiating with the tribes, writing exhaustive harvest management plans, doing even more stream surveys and gathering other niggling details for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
For instance, when WDFW opened the Baker River for sockeye in mid-July, the agency had to send someone over to check if any wild winter steelhead were being landed.
Given the glaringly obvious decades-long fall of Puget Sound’s steelhead, it’s too bad that more scrutiny didn’t occur to someone at WDFW earlier. But now NMFS has been asking things like, how many wild fish are hooked during winter fisheries?
That’s unclear – there’s no data – and to run a creel sample could cost upwards of $50,000 to $60,000 for just a single river, the first biologist estimated, a big chunk of change for a cash-strapped agency.
Starting this winter, there’s a new allowable “impact rate” on natives – how many fish can be incidentally killed by hook-and-release mortality, net drop-out, etc.
“It’s 4 percent averaged over the ‘Big Five’ rivers – Skagit, Snohomish, Green, Puyallup and Nisqually,” says Bartlett. “It will likely tighten seasons when wild fish are present.”
While you can find a few wilds in Puget Sound rivers practically any month of the year, this winter’s fishing may be curtailed on waters outside of terminal zones at the end of January as they really begin to arrive.
If there’s an irony in all this, it’s that NMFS didn’t mention harvest as a factor in the species’ decline. Instead, it was linked to habitat, dams, hatcheries and the ocean.
But outside of salting Puget Sound and the North Pacific with iron filings and sprinkling krill in front of our smolts, forklifting Stanwood, Mount Vernon and Tacoma off of the deltas and joining with Billy Frank Jr. and the tribes to demand that the state seriously address habitat, tightening the fishery is the only place managers can turn.
“ELIMINATION” WAS THE COLUMBIAN article’s watchword — and the nut of the story is being used as a rallying point to get anglers to email Director Anderson about how we feel — but afterward WDFW spokespeople were using terms like “reduction” and “reduce” instead.
“I don’t believe (Anderson) meant eliminate all of Puget Sound,” says Hatcheries Division manager Heather Bartlett, no relation to Craig, “but we may have to make some reductions where it eliminates it in some places and refines opportunities elsewhere.”
How much meaningful fishing opportunity there is left to prune is a good question.
A quintet of waters that contributed a total of 6,447 fish to ’63-64’s catch – the Nisqually, Sammamish, Duckabush and Dosewallips Rivers and Lake Washington Ship Canal – are no longer in play.
Up until 10 years ago the regs allowed you to keep wild fish on several of the so-called “S” streams in North Puget Sound, and there was a spring catch-and-release fishery on the Skykomish.
WDFW is no longer stocking fish-trapless tribs such as the Raging, Tolt and Sauk, no longer uses late-returning hatchery fish for broodstock and new this winter is a Feb. 15 closing date on most streams, two weeks earlier than in the past.
Also new this year, stream fishing rules on Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca tributaries flip-flopped from open unless listed as closed to closed unless listed as open.
And, acknowledges Craig Bartlett, WDFW has “reduced or eliminated (summer-run) hatchery production on several area rivers, including the Snoqualmie, Green, Skagit and Nooksack, largely due to previous budget reductions.”
Nature as well as those extremely low adult returns has ended it on the Puyallup for now.
“The last release was basically the flood of (January) 2009,” which walloped the Voights Creek hatchery, says Scharpf.
WDFW has a plan to rebuild Voights, and has strong support from the Puyallup Tribe, but there have been “speed bumps” in being able to buy a nearby property to build a new facility, according to Heather Bartlett. The budget crisis isn’t helping the project either, but she believes there’s enough support to fund it and move forward.
WHO KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN in the end with Puget Sound steelheading. Craig Bartlett says that final decisions are still months away, but the agency “has no choice but to start weighing the alternatives.”
“WDFW does not want to reduce fishing opportunities for steelhead in the Puget Sound area any more than it wants to lay off enforcement officers, lose hatcheries or close public access sites,” he says. “But those are some of the options the department is facing.”
When Anderson and other honchoes fan out across the state to talk about potential cuts, the size of the hole in not just the General Fund but also the Wildlife Fund if a 10 percent license surcharge isn’t extended by the Legislature forces them to warn that many programs are in danger.
“It would be worse,” says deputy director Joe Stohr, “if we didn’t talk about it and then surprised everybody.”
He says that there’s really only five or six areas where General and Wildlife Fund dollars go, thus there’s really only a handful of places to cut — and he sees years and years of economic difficulties ahead for WDFW.
Meanwhile, among Washington sportsmen there have been mixed reactions to WDFW’s legislative request to – for the first time in 10-plus years – boost some license fees which would bolster the Wildlife Account.
Online, people grumble that it’s just a “tax” and that what we’re paying for now isn’t a glimmer of what it was back in the glory days – say, 1963-64. But they may not realize that when it comes to the General Fund, WDFW and DNR are sucking hind tit. And the coming cuts are only going to make the milk flow thinner.
“The Department is making a concerted effort to make itself less dependent on the General Fund,” says Heather Bartlett, “to be less subject to economic (ups and downs) knowing we don’t compete well against hungry kids,” a reference to public health, prison and education needs that consume the lion’s share of the General Fund.
So something is going to give.
Inland fisheries and warmwater took hits in the last budget go-around, so what else is left?
A fishery that’s a shadow of its former self, one that basically just feeds smolts to the ocean, one with increasing costs due to ESA, and one that largely uses a single type of steelhead for its broodstock which, says a third biologist, has been shown to interbreed with threatened wild stocks?
“I think people think it’s a scare tactic, but it’s not,” says the first biologist, who was monitoring reaction to Anderson’s words on Piscatorial Pursuits. “We’re to the point now that most (WDFW employees) can’t do what needs to be done. We can’t do some core activities, so we have to look at whole programs.”
If the number of local magazines, radio shows, Web sites, bait and tackle shops, fishing guides and boat and gear manufacturers focusing on steelhead here are a sign, I’d say the species is the core of Puget Sound fishing.
True, it’s not what it once was and the wilds need help.
But it would be a devastating blow culturally and economically to kibosh the fishery.
Tax measures got crushed at the ballot box earlier this month and WDFW has no plans to ask we users to support the program financially, but would some sort of license endorsement funding improved hatchery production, biologists and monitoring be a better answer than no season at all?
Or would limping along on a core of rivers — maybe the Skykomish and Cascade — be preferable?