Anglers and hunters can’t accept ‘management by extinction’

A book on our shelf contains a steelhead-fishing story first
published in Field and Stream magazine in 1971. The late Charlie
Waterman wrote of his fly-fishing experiences on the Kispiox River
in northern British Columbia, which is famed for producing
steelhead topping 30 pounds. It is a tributary of the mighty Skeena
River, also a legendary fishing hole.

Now and again I reread that story and daydream about mimicking
Waterman’s experience, traveling to B.C. in September to camp
beside the river and fish. Recently, I read a report that tossed
some cold water on my dream. “State of the Steelhead” by Dylan
Tomine, is a sobering look at the precipitous decline of wild
steelhead populations from California to Alaska.

Tomine was commissioned to write the report by the Wild
Steelhead Coalition, a fisheries conservation organization based in
Washington State. He writes that wild steelhead runs in many, if
not most, river systems are a shadow of their historic levels. More
ominously, he warns those shadows are rapidly disappearing.

“We were fishing for crumbs 10 years ago,” he writes, “and now
even those crumbs are fading away.”

Tomine’s home river, the Skykomish near Seattle, had a
productive catch-and-release fishery for wild steelhead during the
1990s, but the returning spawning runs declined to a point where
even the catch-and-release season was closed in 2001. During the
1990s, about 8,000 steelhead ran up the Snohomish River system
(which includes the Skykomish), but even though they were protected
from angling harvest, fish numbers dwindled. Currently, the
spawning run is down to about 3,000 fish. The steelhead population
in Puget Sound – the part of the Pacific where Snohomish fish roam
– is estimated to be 1.6 to 4 percent of its historic size.

For a steelhead angler, like myself, this was depressing news,
but Tomine’s report on recent runs in the Skeena River was even
worse. Calling the Skeena “the crown jewel of modern steelhead
rivers” he writes the summer steelhead run has declined from a few
thousand to a few hundred fish, very likely because the steelhead
are “by-catch” in commercial gill nets set for sockeye salmon. Even
though Skeena steelhead are the engine that drives a $30 million
sport fishery, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has
ignored biologists, lodge owners, and anglers who warn that the
crown jewel of steelhead rivers is losing its gems. No efforts were
made to reduce the by-catch.

The story of commercial interests trumping steelhead
conservation has played out many times across the Pacific
Northwest. In California, rivers where spawning steelhead were
abundant as recently as the 1950s and ’60s now are candidates for
endangered species listing due to the ecological damage wrought by
dams, diversions, agriculture, poor logging practices, and over
harvest. One example is the Ventura River, which once received an
average of 4,000 spawning steelhead and now gets about 50.

The government response to Ventura River steelhead as reported
by Tomine is a little strange. Responding to a local petition to
list the steelhead under the Endangered Species Act, federal
officials said they needed DNA samples to determine if the fish
were indeed a distinct strain. The feds wanted to collect samples
from 50 fish – the entire run.

Writes Tomine, “The situation deteriorated into a standoff
between armed State Fish and Game officers protecting the fish from
federal employees who needed to “take” the fish in order to protect
them. Did Mel Brooks write this script?”

Tomine believes what he calls “management by extinction” is by
no means limited to Ventura River steelhead. He points to
Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where a handful of rivers contain
some of the last “healthy” runs of wild steelhead in the United
States. State and tribal fisheries officials manage steelhead in
those rivers for maximum sustainable harvest, even when the number
of fish surviving to spawn drops well below what those same
officials consider sustainable levels.

Why are Pacific Coast steelhead being “managed by extinction?”
The story quotes Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia clothing
company, who says, “Federal policy in both the U.S. and Canada is
to extirpate steelhead – entirely because they are a pain in the
ass that get in the way of fish farming, electricity production,
commercial fishing, logging, development and other resource
extraction industries.” While I hadn’t really thought much about
this idea previously, Mr. Chouinard’s observation makes sense, not
only for wild steelhead, but also for management decisions
regarding other “troublesome” species. In years of reporting, I’ve
listened to managers in Minnesota complain that we shouldn’t
protect Lake Superior brook trout from harvest just to create a
“museum population” and that the state never had a breeding
population of lynx. I’ve heard some folks who worry we may now
apply “management by extinction” to Minnesota moose. While I
wouldn’t accuse the managers of evil intent, it was clearly in the
best interest of the agency they worked for if the species in
question just went away.

For lynx and brook trout, I’ve subsequently been able to report
the managers were wrong. In both cases, we’ve discovered small, but
viable populations that, with adequate protection, are likely to
expand within the available habitat. The jury is still out on the
management approach we’ll take for Minnesota moose.

While I’ve been reporting on outdoor issues long enough to have
become cynical about how the game is played, I haven’t entirely
lost my optimism.

There is still time to improve the situation for wild steelhead
on the Pacific Coast, especially if anglers are willing to flex
their collective muscle and demand better management.

While the public process isn’t perfect, concerned citizens can
make a positive difference for fish and wildlife. The caveat is
that people need to get involved and do their part for the
betterment of our fish and wildlife resources and, as a logical
outcome, angling and hunting. We need not be content to fish or
hunt for crumbs of once abundant fish or game, but we must be
willing to roll up our sleeves and fight for something better.

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