Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission is being petitioned to close the early portion of the Olympic Peninsula’s 2023-24 steelhead season.
The Conservation Angler wants the panel overseeing WDFW to halt all angling for steelhead through February 15 – which would impact the back end of hatchery fisheries on the Quillayute, Bogachiel, Calawah and other waters – to protect early-returning native fish.
“Wild early-run-winter (sic) steelhead are depleted on the Olympic Peninsula and the run timing is now more compressed, hindering their capacity to adapt to and remain productive during climate change,” claims David Moskowitz in TCA’s nine-page filing.
The commission is scheduled to make a decision at its late January meeting.
The Edmonds-based organization filed their petition in late November just as WDFW was setting this winter’s season, which is currently scheduled to run through March on OP waters.
TCA worries about the “sublethal effects” catching and releasing wild steelhead may have, such as on subsequent egg production on the spawning grounds; recent years’ low winter flows on the peninsula and the strength of this season’s El Niño; and overall angler effort.
Similar to Puget Sound, state and tribal harvest on the peninsula has been focused for decades on early-returning winter steelhead, mostly hatchery fish with some wilds mixed in, with concerns about the impact of that rising from time to time. Enhanced creel monitoring this season shows equal numbers of both types of steelhead caught on Forks-area rivers since December 1.
TCA’s petition comes as NMFS last year found that listing Olympic Peninsula steelhead – vaunted as Washington’s “crown jewel fisheries” – under the federal Endangered Species Act “may be warranted,” prompting a 12-month deep dive into the status of the stock and which will wrap up in early 2024. That petition was also filed by TCA, as well as the Wild Fish Conservancy.
Low forecasted runs to the Washington Coast in recent years have seen WDFW manage the overall winter fishery more conservatively than in the past, with bait and boat fishing restrictions, but it hasn’t been enough for TCA.
“The current approach is not moving the dial to protect or rebuild the early returning wild steelhead which are the most at-risk component of the populations,” Moskowitz wrote in submitting the petition to close the first two-thirds of this season’s fishery.
Coastal steelheaders have already been aced out of tapping into plentiful Grays Harbor system hatchery returns the past couple seasons due to WDFW and the Quinault Indian Nation not being able to agree on limited openers there and well-below-escapement wild steelhead forecasts.
But while the Fish and Wildlife Commission is being bombarded with petitions to require WDFW to begin lengthy new rulemaking around various species, TCA’s approach is more direct.
“The Commission should, as part of its oversight responsibility, amend the rules to prohibit fishing from December 1 through February 15 because WDFW lacks sufficient information to responsibly manage the early run-timed component of a species that is proposed for listing under the ESA,” the petition states.
If the commission were to agree at its January 25-27 meeting, it would also send an early message about the 2024-25 season. So too might the conclusion of NMFS’s pending 12-month review.