With worrisomely low returns of wild fish so far to rivers in the Forks area and Willapa Bay, Washington Coast steelhead managers are again closing fishing early.
An announcement hinted at late last week came to fruition this afternoon, shutting down a season that was even more restricted than 2021’s, which also closed before its scheduled end in late March.
This latest one takes effect March 1, impacts all sport fishing on coastal rivers and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and was couched as “an effort to meet management objectives and provide necessary protection for dwindling wild steelhead populations” in a WDFW press release.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any fish on the West End or South Coast – anglers enjoyed a really strong return of hatchery winter-runs back to the Bogachiel and WDFW describes the wild run as about “more than one-third of the way complete” – but the trends that state and tribal managers are seeing have them very concerned.
WDFW reports that preliminary data suggests wild runs are “likely coming back as low as 30 percent of what fishery managers expected, foreshadowing perhaps the lowest return ever recorded in some rivers.”
That mark is otherwise held by 2021, which saw a post-fishing spawning escapement of 25,723 native fish.
The coastwide forecast for this season was for 26,336 unclipped steelies to enter the rivers.
While preseason predictions ruled out fisheries on state sections of midcoast systems like the Chehalis, Queets and Quinault from the onset, more than enough wild fish were expected on the Quillayute and Willapa rivers to allow fishing – including boats on sections of the Bogachiel, Quillayute and Calawah – and still meet spawning escapement goals and statewide steelhead management plan marks.
WDFW is trying to cut a fine line between eking out fishing opportunity around struggling wild runs and the rumblings of an Endangered Species Act petition proposal – none of the “crown jewel” coastal steelhead stocks are currently listed.
But word emerged late last week during a meeting of a new ad hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group that WDFW managers were “nervous” because the runs appeared to be coming in “well below forecast – not just a little bit, but significantly.”
That was based on information collected by state creel checkers and in tribal fisheries.
WDFW reports that comanagers are “closely monitoring their coastal steelhead fisheries and considering in-season management steps to continue to support conservation.”
Before sport seasons were announced late last November, some had called on WDFW to not even open the fishery so the wild fish could be left to spawn instead of support popular catch-and-release fisheries. Others, however, noted that closures haven’t helped bring back Puget Sound stocks and that a blanket shutdown would leave harvestable hatchery runs untapped.
At the time, WDFW warned that ocean conditions for this year’s fish had not been good.
The announcement closes fishing a month earlier than planned on the Bogachiel, Calawah, Dickey, Fork Creek, Hoh, South Fork Hoh, Naselle, Quillayute, Sol Duc, Thunder Creek and Willapa. All other coastal streams were scheduled to close March 1 or were shut down back on December 1.
Earlier today we reported how a long-shot bid to open the Skookumchuck’s late-timed clipped steelhead run for harvest was also shot down.
As a whole, Washington steelheading is now perhaps in its most pitiful state ever, in this reporter’s recollection, with this winter the nadir of opportunity.
All of Puget Sound, including the Skagit and Sauk, is closed; North and South Coast systems will shortly join shut-down Central Coast ones; Upper Columbia rivers haven’t been open in years; Snake River tribs are operating under reduced limits following the lowest A-run on record.
In Southwest Washington, the Willapa, Elochoman and Lewis are seeing relatively good hatchery returns, but WDFW’s catch stats for the Cowlitz last week showed 45 anglers with all of three steelhead, a very far cry from the same stat week at this time last February.
But indeed, everything seems a very far cry anymore.