Last week’s announcement by the Wild Fish Conservancy that they plan to sue WDFW over the agency’s use of Chambers Creek steelhead, which power Puget Sound fisheries, is troubling.
Now, I am all for recovering wild steelhead stocks, for catch-and-release fisheries only on them, for figuring out what’s wrong with runs in this basin asap, for repairing and protecting as much fish habitat as possible.
But at the same time, I’m also all for steelies you can knock on the noggin and take home for dinner without a damn bit of guilt.
Always have, always will.
I’ve been reporting on the plight of the basin’s steelhead since well before 2007’s listing, documenting the reduced fishing opportunities ever since, and I question the group’s thinking.
They argue that Chambers fish — 1.3 million of which are planted mostly as winter-runs annually in the Nooksack, Skagit, Stilly, Snohomish, Green and Dungeness systems — hurt native steelies.
The science may show as much — then again, in a couple months, new research might have a different take — but tell me, purists, where has the end of hatchery releases resulted in a big resurgence of native winters and summers in Puget Sound?
In Hood Canal rivers?
South Fork Stilly?
Are streams that haven’t been planted for decades and that we have metrics for — like, say, the Nisqually — seeing massive runs of wild steelhead these days? Or are they limping along at a quarter to half of escapement, despite strong smolt outmigration and the absence of their evil clipped cousins?
What is your end goal here, actually?
There are a host of factors keeping Puget Sound steelhead down, the vagaries of ocean production being one of the biggest, but it’s beginning to look like the sound itself may be having a pretty serious impact too. As we reported in our January issue, scientists estimate that only one in five wild smolts are making it from estuary to ocean, one in eight hatcheries.
That’s after they’ve survived living in rivers with much less fish-friendly woody debris and big boulders, much more silt and sand, and now suffering from low summer and fall flows.
The problems steelhead face are more than a few of the “highly domesticated” production fish shacking up with wilds instead of going back to the hatchery like most do, or being bigger bullies when it comes to feeding time.
(Unfortunately an integrated broodstock program is not an easy option because it wouldn’t separate run timing like using Chambers does.)
But this threatened lawsuit seems not so much aimed at helping steelhead as it is about hurting anglers and a storied fishery — and by extension, could hurt the wild fish themselves.
Did you guys think about that, or did the recent Sandy court case cloud your vision?
THE LITIGIOUS NATURE OF NATIVE FISH FOLKS we’ve seen in Oregon and Washington recently is not unlike the blindness exhibited by the hardcore wolf lovers in the Rockies, the people who used the courts to get the species well beyond recovery goals, and in doing so basically said to hell with locals, ranchers, hunters and government agencies, fracturing relationships with the people who share the same basic goals.
There’s nobody bigger on habitat and big numbers of wapiti than the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and yet in their arrogant overreach, the fringe wolfies managed to antagonize the till-then moderate organization that has invested massively in making sure the herds stay strong — which helped the wolfies’ cause, by the way.
Are the purists about to do the same to those of us who love steelheading in Puget Sound rivers for wild fish that we now recognize deserve to go back as well as for hatcheries to put on the grill every now and then?
Let’s say this lawsuit goes to court, and — worst-case scenario — a judge orders WDFW to not release the spring’s smolt crop. Two winters later, we Seattle, Monroe, Auburn, Arlington, Concrete and Everson steelheaders — seething mad about a lack of local fish — head over to Forks, pack the rivers, maybe a few more guys keep wilds in protest.
Many more give up, and overall the purists ultimately lose partners in the battle for the species in Pugetropolis.
I would ask them, are you ready to bear that weight by yourself?
Do you have the resources to do that?
Don’t you think it would be smarter if there were more of us fighting for the fish?
Is it also a bright idea to piss off a fair number of Puget Sound tribes, the guys who have some pull on these things?
Do our steelhead really need fewer allies these days?
That’s what you risk losing: You are just a small slice of the public that cares about this resource — way out at the end of the spectrum. By potentially killing hatchery releases here, you alienate a much larger group of riverkeepers.
There is strength and passion in our numbers.
You lose the drift boaters who might spot a landowner illegally altering river bank with a bulldozer.
You lose the bankees who might find a gillnet or call in poachers clipping fins.
You lose the guys who carry garbage sacks along with their Corkies to clean up litter.
You lose the fishermen and -women who might spot pollutants surreptitiously being dumped at a takeout.
You lose the guides who have the pulses of the waters.
You lose the letter-writers who might have sent missives to their Congressman to protect a stretch of wild and scenic river, the forest supervisor that that proposed clearcut will put too much silt into the stream, the energy commission that that new dam will drown spawning habitat and stop the migration downstream of gravel.
You lose the weekend volunteers willing to rip out blackberries and reed canary grass and plant trees on the shores instead.
You lose the agency dollars and government interest that would otherwise focus on Oncorhynchus mykiss.
And the fish themselves lose.
So maybe, wild fish purists, you just sit tight.
Maybe you withdraw your massive steelhead PDR filed last week and let WDFW get to work on the species instead of chasing down that mountain of paperwork.
Maybe you just grit your teeth and bear releases of the Chambers fish.
For the good of all the steelhead.
That’s assuming you really care about the fish.
What do you say?