Huge Audience Tunes In To Commission Hearing On WA Coast Steelhead Restrictions

Controversial Washington Coast steelhead restrictions announced this week attracted an online audience of 500-plus this afternoon as anglers and others weighed in on the massive changes or came to hear more details on WDFW the decision was reached.

“We reached our limit on Zoom and there were additional people who wanted to get on,” noted Director Kelly Susewind as the two-and-a-half-hour-plus-long briefing, public comment and discussion before the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Fish Committee wrapped up this afternoon.


Looking at my notes, a rudimentary tally of the three dozen speakers shows that, very generally speaking, about the same number of people approved of the changes as were opposed to it at some level.

Some termed it an overly blanket approach as, indeed, all rivers from the Forks area to Willapa Bay will switch to selective-gear angling from the bank only starting this Monday (using a floating device to get from place to place will still be allowed).

Streams in that swath of heavily watered countryside are seeing anywhere from chronically low wild steelhead returns to tightroping spawning escapement goals to being well above – but still well down from past decades’ highs.

Others supported WDFW for making the very tough call, saying that the fish had to be put first but that the decision still did allow for angling, just not like before.

The economic impact on small communities already hard hit by Covid-19 was raised, as was the potential danger in asking clients or passengers to get out of the boat on oftentimes burly rivers – not to mention rain-, ice- and occasionally snow-slick rocks – to take their casts.

(Note that individuals with mobility issues can apply for exemptions to the rule.)

There were the obligatory what-about-the-tribes questions.

And the future was also brought up, as some worried about what an Endangered Species Act listing would bring to the highly prized fishery and remote towns and said that while it was late in the game, there was still time to change the course of history.

The unexpected meeting of the Fish Committee was announced just yesterday morning at the request of Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Larry Carpenter.

Even if he in fact had a quorum of the commission on the call – six members including himself tuned in – Carpenter made it pretty clear that it was not meant to change Susewind’s decision.

“We don’t have the authority to do that,” he said.

Instead, Carpenter said it was a chance to hear from the public on a highly controversial topic, and a total of 515 people tuned in, “an all-time record for a meeting I’ve been in.”

He termed the feedback “worthy comments and heartfelt comments. I learned a lot and I’m sure others did.”

After about an hourlong staff presentation from WDFW’s Kelly Cunningham and James Losee, there was around an hour and a quarter of public comment, with two minutes per speaker, followed by half an hour of commissioner discussion on the matter.

Commissioner Don McIsaac said he was heartened to hear so much support for needed conservation, but that the boat ban was a bit of a surprise. He said he agreed that one size does not fit all.

He also said that WDFW needed to do a better job at communicating the issue.

“We were all taken aback when the world exploded for us last Friday,” agreed Vice Chair Barbara Baker.

That was when, during public comment, the commission really started hearing about WDFW’s pending decision on coastal fisheries, and led Carpenter to say they had been caught flat-footed and that was “a little bit embarrassing.”

Still, Baker acknowledged that sometimes WDFW did need to move fast.

Today’s committee hearing follows a late Thanksgiving online meeting attended by around 160 and in which WDFW laid out the challenges and options for the season after fast-tracking winter steelhead forecasts. Afterwards were two meetings with guide associations and WDFW staffers looked at myriad angles.

Yesterday I asked Fish Program Manager Kelly Cunningham about allowing boats on only certain days, an idea from former Seattle PI outdoor reporter Greg Johnston.

“We thought of a whole slew of scenarios. None of them gave us confidence that we would meet the management objectives,” Cunningham said.

The objective in this case is limiting angler impacts on wild steelhead, and to do that most effectively means barring boat fishing coastwide, a bitter bitter pill for many, and expected to chop the catch in half this winter.

“We hate the structure as much as anybody, but given the situation we’re in … it provides opportunity this season and takes that step of putting the fish first,” Cunningham said.

But WDFW’s fast moves have downstream impacts beyond guide bookings and hotel reservations in Forks too.

Gabe Miller of Sportco – full disclosure, a Northwest Sportsman advertiser – noted on a Facebook post today how as the buyer for his company he’d bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear for the fishery and the bill from suppliers was coming due but the tackle wasn’t likely to move.

I need to wrap this up as darkness closes in on this rainy Friday afternoon and I’d like to do so with some particularly cogent quote from the meeting, but I can’t find one.

There was so many good points on all sides that I think it would be unfair to put my hand on the scale one way or the other.

I will say that I’ve been thinking a lot about steelhead these past couple weeks and all the stories I’ve done since getting into this biz in the early 2000s. I now think I may have written more pieces on management issues than how and where to catch them. And unfortunately I don’t see that trend changing, damnit.

Anyway, I’m out of brainpower for the week, but for what it’s worth, there it is.