With Idaho steelhead numbers floundering, wildlife officials give nod to keep fishing open on most rivers
LEWISTON, Idaho — Idaho wildlife officials have approved an agreement with conservation groups and sport anglers to keep most steelhead fishing areas open.
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to support the deal on Friday, the same day Idaho steelhead seasons were scheduled to expire.
Portions of the South Fork of the Clearwater River and the Salmon River will remain closed as part of the deal, the Lewiston Tribune reported.
“This is really a win for everybody,” said Roy Akins of Idaho River Community Alliance, a group of outfitters, guides and businesses that rely on steelhead anglers. “Now we can get back to work and focus attention on fish recovery.”
The commission last month voted to suspend the steelhead fishing season because of a possible federal lawsuit by six conservation groups contending the state’s steelhead regulations harm federally protected wild steelhead.
Idaho wild steelhead have been struggling and were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997.
Wild steelhead caught by anglers must be returned to the river unharmed. But an estimated 3 percent of wild fish that are caught and released by sport anglers die as a result. For Idaho to allow the incidental capture of wild steelhead and the resulting deaths, it needs the federal government’s approval of its Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan.
State officials say they applied for such a plan with the Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after the plan expired in 2010, but haven’t yet received one.
The portions of Idaho rivers that remain closed to anglers under the deal are areas where wild steelhead are known to congregate.
“This resolution achieves the commission’s objective to limit impacts to steelhead fishing as much as possible while we remain focused on finally receiving federal approval of our steelhead fishery plan for the long term,” said Virgil More, director of Idaho Fish and Game.
Fish and game officials refused to change legal fishing gear and fishing practices requested by the conservation groups. But outfitters and guides with the Idaho River Community Alliance said they would voluntarily adopt some of the changes.
This year’s return of steelhead to Idaho is one of the worst on record. About 95,000 steelhead, including 30,000 wild steelhead, have been counted passing Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River between July 1 and Nov. 12. That’s the lowest overall number since 1978, and the lowest wild steelhead number since 1996.
David Moskowitz, executive director of the Conservation Angler, one of the groups that threatened the lawsuit, said his group has been working up and down the Columbia River to make sure wild steelhead make it back to Idaho.
“We are working hard for those wild fish,” he said. “I hope that earns us a little bit of credibility.”