A rule that would have permanently closed the Quillayute and Hoh systems to steelheading in April was nixed by WDFW at the last moment after sharp criticism of the proposal and process.
“Fish Program and Director (Kelly) Susewind decided to not go forward with the proposed Freshwater rules for April in the North Coast Systems,” the agency’s Mark Baltzell confirmed via email this afternoon.
The proposal had drawn a lot of negative feedback from the Forks, guide, steelheader and stakeholder communities, who were caught completely flat-footed that it was even in the works.
Indeed, it took a very close reading of WDFW’s 170-page proposed 2023-24 salmon seasons, posted last month for public comment and final approval this month, to even see that closing steelheading in April was even on the table. It amounted to a handful of struck-out dates and new ones.
As I began reporting on the issue in late May, agency Fish Program Director Kelly Cunningham said it was based off of an agreement with tribal comanagers during the recently concluded North of Falcon salmon-season-setting negotiations.
He and WDFW’s Kyle Addicks said that essentially it protected against incidental steelhead encounters and reduced impacts on spring and summer Chinook returning to the Hoh and Quillayute systems.
The steelheading world wasn’t buying it, with anglers and others stating the move “lacks scientific evidence that it will achieve any conservation goals,” they had been “excluded” from the process, the state was being “evasive and deceptive” about it, and that it would impact the local economy.
“The missed opportunity of an April fishery will cost my Forks-based small business over $10k and that number can be multiplied many, many times for direct impact to our local guides,” said Bob Ball, a longtime Forks-area fishing guide and president of the Olympic Peninsula Guide Association.
Then, at last week’s public hearing on the pending rules, with WDFW being urged to “withdraw” the proposal, the agency quietly stated that it was being reconsidered.
And now, this afternoon, they have fully reversed course.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that steelheading will automatically be open next April on the Hoh, Bogey, Sol Duc, Calawah, Dickey and elsewhere on the North Coast. With low returns of winter-runs in recent years, that’s been determined season to season based on preseason forecasts and comanager agreements.
But it keeps it from becoming a permanent rule and losing the potential opportunity.
And it’s also a hard lesson for WDFW about how not to ram through a regulation and underlines the necessity of talking to your stakeholders, your allies in this.
That, I think, is the most important takeaway on this one.
We all know that some of our runs are in rough shape and need close management. We’ll grumble, all right, but conservation is first. Always has been, always will be.