WDFW managers worked to allay concerns about their draft Coastal Steelhead Proviso Implementation Plan during a meeting this morning with members of a Fish and Wildlife Commission subcommittee.
They explained how the 138-page document fits inside 2008’s Statewide Steelhead Management Plan and current hatchery practices and policies, how it has been developed with an ad-hoc advisory group of anglers, guides and others over the past year, its progress shared with interested comanagers, and more.
“Not submitting the proviso would be extremely problematic for us with the legislative branch,” Kelly Cunningham, Fish Program manager, told the Fish Committee during a nearly three-hour meeting on coastal steelhead issues today.
Commissioner Tim Ragen agreed, saying it would be worse than shooting themselves in the foot. “It would be shooting ourselves in the head.”
WDFW and all manner of steelhead interests hope it helps the agency score $5.9 million from Olympia over the coming two years to sharply increase sport fishery monitoring on the North Coast, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay systems, perform scientific research on the stocks and get cracking on watershed-specific planning.
As background, the proviso was built into WDFW’s 2021’s operating budget with a deadline of December 1, 2022 for informing lawmakers about how their directive to, in part, “adequately protect those fisheries for healthy runs year-after-year as well as provide reasonable fishing opportunities” would be implemented.
Legislators were reacting to constituent requests as coastal steelhead fisheries have had to be heavily restricted since December 2020 due to all-time low returns in aggregate that since have begun to tick back up somewhat though are still only half of a high mark in the middle of last decade.
Before being presented to lawmakers next month, WDFW pushed the draft Coastal Steelhead Proviso Implementation Plan out for a brief, 10-day public comment, and as you can imagine with such a sweeping document full of novel terminology and phrases like “re-scale hatchery releases” – which is based on a recent analysis that recommended lowering them by 29 percent coastwide to reduce the risk of clipped fish spawning with wilds and to finally come in line on the coast with the statewide steelhead plan – it was bound to raise red flags with some.
Indeed, Cunningham recognized that any time the issue of hatchery production is raised, it’s bound to excite fears, and from both sides of the question. Commissioner Jim Anderson also touched on that, adding that communicating more about the implementation plan should be a “first-order priority.”
Jonathan Stumpf is pretty familiar with CSPIP. He’s a member of that ad-hoc steelhead group but spoke strictly as a Trout Unlimited representative after Thursday morning’s meeting
He noted the proviso had been a “big lift” by a diverse group of stakeholders, and said that, if funded, it will bring coastal steelhead management up to snuff with the statewide plan.
“At the core, this plan is an attempt by the agency to rectify the lack of sportfish monitoring on the coast, which I think anyone who has been paying attention the past few years can agree is absolutely critical for continuing any type of fishery into the future,” Stumpf stated. “On the whole, this plan will provide the stepping stones to filling data gaps and critical research needs toward development of regional management plans and the eventual foundation for rebuilding these populations.”
Indeed, during another part of today’s meeting, WDFW Region 6 fisheries manager James Losee termed coastal steelhead effort and creel information “our biggest data gap.”
Collecting better data is important so that managers can be sure a fishery isn’t impacting a struggling run too heavily and keep it open, or know that it needs to be closed asap to protect the fish. For example, right now Cunningham, Losee, et al are trying to figure out if it’s possible to open Chehalis tribs like the Wishkah, Wynoochee, Satsop and Skookumchuck to access late coho or late hatchery steelhead while having extremely low wild winter-run impacts – essentially dead fish – available under that statewide steelhead plan and its 10 percent hooking mortality assumption.
The rub is, right now WDFW has limited staffers – four techs and a biologist – so it would be a trick to open all four of the above rivers, more like one at a time, possibly two at best.
“This is not a simple operation we’re trying to pull off, but it is possible,” said Losee.
If CSPIP is fully funded, WDFW estimates it would support the equivalent of 21.3 full-time staffers, increasing the ability to monitor fisheries and do so much more.
Cunningham indicated the coastal plan wouldn’t change already-existing policies and responding to committee chair Don McIsaac’s inquiry around it reducing or even closing hatcheries, Losee said, “That’s just not true.” He said “some exciting things” anglers have wanted in terms of steelhead production are envisioned in it.
Speaking to the compressed 10-day timeline for review, Cunningham said it was a chance for the public who hadn’t tuned into the ad-hoc meetings a chance to dig into the proviso plan. Between the holidays, finalizing the draft and legislative deadline, comment essentially landed on Nov. 11-20.
“It also seems there is a lot of concern about the ability of the public to provide input and I’d say this,” stated Trout Unlimited’s Stumpf. “Of the five advisory groups I’ve participated in with WDFW, to me, this one has been the most transparent and open to public involvement and comment. This included live streams of the meetings, 15 minutes for public comment at the end of each meeting, recordings of the meetingavailable after the meeting, and an open comment form on the WDFW website, of which the few comments that did come in were provided to the advisory group in advance of every meeting. So in my opinion, this process has gone above and beyond with the various and ongoing opportunities for public input.”