I don’t like to get up on my high horse too often because heights are not my thing, but two Seattle TV stations are doing a pretty crappy job this week with their “coverage” of Skykomish River fishing issues, benefiting a utility district that is working to restrict a popular Puget Sound fishery.
Even as there’s no limit to the room on the internet, they posted pint-sized Associated Press boildowns that oversimplify the problem so much that it appears WDFW is just going ahead on this year’s May 23 hatchery steelhead opener regardless of tanking wild steelhead numbers in a tributary of the Sky.
If you’re a Snohomish County Public Utility District manager in Everett or a wild fish zealot down in Duvall, boy howdy are you rolling in it and all giddy today because it plays right into your goals of demonizing state management on this system and distracting the public from the real problems.
In fact, the story is far more complex than KOMO’s and KING 5’s websites would have it.
The original source for the AP’s and TV stations’ “reporting” is a Herald of Everett article out yesterday. I don’t like its slant but it’s a good piece because it actually does cover the situation in depth.
Yes, I’m biased, but for extra credit, here are my own lengthy blogs on the matter:
The KING 5 story is particularly galling, as it reports that “many anglers are unable to identify when they catch a federally endangered steelhead.”
That is absolute crap.
Wild steelhead have not been retainable in the Skykomish and elsewhere in Pugetropolis since the early years of this millennium.
Going back as far back as the middle years of the 1980s, hatchery steelhead have had their adipose fin cut off to differentiate them from wild steelhead.
Almost all hatchery coho and Chinook have been similarly marked since the early 2000s for the same reason.
All Northwest steelhead and salmon anglers in fact can tell hatcheries and wild apart because the press releases, regulation pamphlets, regs changes — practically everything WDFW puts out reinforces that in our brains.
Hell, when we have kids, we joke they’re fin-clipped keepers.
Essentially, what PUD — undoubtedly driven by threatened Wild Fish Conservancy litigation — is desperately trying to do here is blame WDFW’s hatchery summer steelhead and Chinook fishery on the Skykomish for the inability of Sultan River wild steelhead to recover.
Spawner numbers have dwindled from 194 in 2008 to 28 in 2018, per the Herald.
For ages, fishing on the Sky did open June 1, but through a larger statewide regs simplification bid it was moved to the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend beginning last year.
PUD claims pre- and postspawn wild winters, as well as outmigrating smolts, are being impacted by the late spring opener.
They want to push it back to June 15, as well as ban bait.
But that would cripple fishing on the last best river for steelies and kings in Puget Sound, making this a battle worth fighting.
Indeed, WDFW contends fishing is not the problem.
The agency’s federal permit to run the season allows for a maximum impact of up to 4.2 percent on wild steelhead, and the agency’s regional fisheries manager Edward Eleazer told The Herald that the actual rate is estimated to be well below that at just 2.2 percent.
Again, there can be no doubt that wild steelhead are not doing good in Puget Sound, thus 2007’s listing.
But wild winter steelhead aren’t just faring poorly in the Sultan because of summer fishing.
They’re doing badly in the river immediately to the west, the Pilchuck — fish which are not subject to incidental catches because most if not all of the fishing pressure that time of year is well, well upstream.
Last year’s 336 Pilchuck spawners were the third fewest on record all the way back to 1981, per WDFW data., down from peaks of 1,036 in 2013 and 1,522 in 2004.
Other larger things are at play for Sultan wild steelhead than when fishing season opens on the Sky and what is used.
Massive, all-encompassing ridgetop-to-Puget Sound habitat alterations.
Harbor seals and other piscovores eating the smolts.
Souring ocean conditions.
Even the region’s strongest wild steelhead runs — those back to the Skagit and Sauk — are suffering.
In the case of the Sultan, there’s another factor in play.
Two PUD dams blocked all steelhead passage to most of the river for decades upon decades.
Good on the utility for finally in 2016 taking out the 1929 Diversion Dam at rivermile 9.7 and opening up the waters of the steep, unstable Sultan River Canyon for steelhead and coho to immediately take advantage of.
And good on them for in 2019 modifying flows out of Culmback Dam as a requirement of federal relicensing so the Sultan is actually finally “better suited to support future fish populations.”
It would be nice for steelhead and salmon to also be able to get above Spada Lake and their young to get downstream past the dam.
But rather than do all of what they need to do, after their petition to the commission to alter the fishing regs failed, PUD is now trying to lean on anglers and WDFW through this public pressure campaign that appears to be timed to coincide with the annual salmon season setting process.
And benefiting from cheap, fast writeups put on the wire by the AP and posted by Seattle TV.
Come on, reporters and editors, as a colleague I know you can do better.