Washington Refuses to Protect Juvenile Steelhead in Fisheries
By Sam Wright, WDFW biologist (retired)
Ever since the ESA-listing of Puget Sound steelhead as Threatened, I attempted to convince the Commission and WDFW that existing regulations for trout fishing in streams were exerting a high fishing mortality rate on juvenile Puget Sound steelhead. The standard response by WDFW had been that comments in the listing decision documents clearly stated that fishing mortality was not a significant problem for Puget Sound steelhead. While all of these Federal comments were clearly made in the context of only adult steelhead, they were mistakenly being applied to juveniles by WDFW. In reality, the fishing mortality rate on juveniles may be an order of magnitude higher than the fishing mortality rate on wild adult steelhead.
The changes proposed for 2010-2012 have finally recognized both the Puget Sound and State-wide problems and the solution is the correct one. It will be the beginning of the end for the long Washington tradition of providing widespread “trout fishing” on juvenile steelhead. It is also being proposed in the correct CLOSED unless OPEN harvest management strategy that limits fishing mortality to times and locations where there is a reasonable expectation of a harvestable surplus for one or more species. In addition, it will make management of trout fishing in streams parallel to the same CLOSED unless OPEN format that has been used for decades to manage both salmon and steelhead fisheries in the same streams.
The primary purpose of the comments to follow is to describe why the net result of existing regulations is a high fishing mortality rate on juvenile Puget Sound steelhead. The basic reference that I will be referring to (unless noted otherwise) is the following: Wright, S. 1992. Guidelines for selecting regulations to manage open-access fisheries for natural populations of anadromous and resident trout in stream habitats. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 12:517-527.
The existing Statewide Freshwater Rules that apply to all Puget Sound streams not identified under Special Rules are a five month fishing season from the first Saturday in June through October 31, a two fish daily bag limit and an 8 inch minimum size limit. In practice, the effective minimum size limit is about 7 inches since there is a tolerance policy (just like everyone knows that they can always go 5 miles over the posted speed limit and never get a ticket). Every length frequency distribution for any fishery with a minimum size limit will show this artifact. There is no restriction on the use of bait even though numerous studies have indicated the expectation of a 30 to 50 % mortality rate for any fish that are hooked and released. This is recognized in WDFW regulations since fish caught with bait count as part of the daily bag limit, while you can continue to catch and release fish caught on artificial lures or flies. However, the regulations also state that, if any fish has swallowed the hook or is hooked in the gill, eye, or tongue, it should be kept if legal to do so. Obviously, these types of regulations can never be effectively enforced in actual practice. Fishing with bait produces a much high incidence of serious injuries since fish are attempting to swallow bait as opposed to capturing a lure or fly.
The net result is that hundreds of the smaller named and unnamed streams in the Greater Puget Sound Basin are open under Statewide Rules to harvest fisheries on juvenile steelhead plus a high hooking mortality rate on smaller fish. There are 56 stream reaches listed under Special Rules that have a 14 inch minimum size limit to prevent retention of juvenile steelhead but this does not apply to most of their tributaries and 51 of the 56 allow the use of bait. There are an additional 24 stream reaches with catch-and-release fisheries but this does not apply to most of their tributaries. There are also 23 stream reaches closed to fishing that lack tributary protection. These three categories total 98 stream reaches where protection has not been extended to most named and unnamed tributaries (a small percentage of named tributaries are identified under Special Rules). Research conducted in Idaho in the early 1970s demonstrated that 70 to 100% of 2-year-old juvenile steelhead could be removed from 400 foot reaches of streams with only four angler hours of fishing effort. Thus, it is possible to severely deplete or even eliminate any juvenile steelhead populations with only a very modest amount of fishing effort.
One source of information that can be used to quantify impacts from fishing comes from the WDFW long-term research station at Big Beef Creek on the Kitsap Peninsula. Smolt production of juvenile salmonids has been measured every year since 1978, while the regulations needed to eliminate significant fishing mortality on juvenile salmonids have been implemented in several increments extending from 1987 to 1999. The end result is a catch-and-release fishery with a prohibition on the use of bait. In the 10-year “before” period from 1978 through 1987, the average annual production of anadromous trout smolts (steelhead, cutthroat, and hybrids) was 1723 fish. The average annual anadromous trout smolt production in the 9-year “after” period from 2000 through 2008 was 2638 fish. This represents a 53% increase in anadromous trout smolt production.
Another quantitative expression of impacts from fishing can be seen in the end result at Chambers Creek, the original brood stock site for most Washington hatchery steelhead. Biologist Bruce Crawford described the history of this resource in a 1979 report entitled “The origin and history of trout brood stocks of the Washington Department of Game”. The natural steelhead run in Chamber Creek had the normal run timing of Puget Sound winter run steelhead and early egg takes were made mainly from February through April. However, the run was shifted a full two months earlier in run timing by continually selecting the earliest returning adults. Egg takes were then made mainly in December and January and the trap was generally opened to unimpeded upstream fish passage in early February. The early run hatchery fish gradually died out due to exceptionally poor smolt to adult survival rates. However, everyone assumed that a natural run still existed in the normal winter steelhead run timing period beginning in early February. WDFW installed a fish counter in the fish ladder during 2008 but not a single adult steelhead was detected. The only plausible cause for this extinction is the “trout” fishery that was provided for decades with only 6 and then 8 inch minimum size limits. This is a 149 square mile watershed with over 330,000 people living in it. New regulations to supposedly “protect steelhead” have recently been adopted for the 2009-2010 period but were applied only to the main stem of Chambers Creek. At least half of the juvenile steelhead rearing potential occurs in four named tributaries and these remained unprotected.
The problems that I have attempted to describe for juvenile Puget Sound steelhead are generic statewide problems that extend to other ESA-listed and unlisted juvenile steelhead populations, ESA-listed bull trout, ESA-listed and unlisted juvenile Chinook salmon populations with significant yearling production, ESA-listed and unlisted juvenile coho salmon populations, juvenile sea-run cutthroat, and immature resident rainbow and cutthroat trout.