OPINION: Can Washington’s steelheaders rise to the challenge of our steelhead crisis?

*The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author.

There should be little debate that December 2020 is the low water mark for Washington steelhead and steelheaders.

Can we turn this ship around? Not if anglers and advocates stay stuck fighting amongst themselves.

As diehard Northwestern outdoors men and women begin their annual transition from coho and chum, or bucks and ducks, to the obsession that is winter steelheading, years of declining runs across our region are underscored by the latest grim forecasts for the coast and Olympic Peninsula—indications that even in their rainforest strongholds, our favorite fish are at a tipping point.

The shadow of Puget Sound’s steelhead legacy looms large, and with it the possibility of federal Endangered Species Act protections and blanket closures—emergency measures that may well be necessary but are no guarantee of recovery despite shutting down all fishing. That’s been clear even on promising systems like the Skagit, where returns have fluctuated and closures have persisted notwithstanding herculean efforts by anglers, agencies, tribes, utilities and conservation groups.

To triage the situation on the coast, Chehalis Basin and Willapa Bay rivers, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently announced early closures and largely unprecedented restrictions, including bank fishing or boats-for-transportation only. These rules are inciting mixed reactions from anglers, guides and stakeholder groups, and I’ll get to them, but first it’s important to acknowledge that these are just the most recent in a long line of concessions by steelheaders in the name of conservation.

Over the decades Washington anglers have been willing to leave the creel at home or even hang up their rods in the name of conservation, but don’t blame us for being skeptical of further sacrifice as steelhead runs continue to decline towards extirpation (local extinction) despite fewer and fewer fishermen on the water.

The turmoil around Washington’s state fish and our vanishing heritage of fishing for them is not limited to dwindling, and in recent years undoubtedly over-pressured, wild runs on the coast and OP.

Upper Columbia steelhead fisheries that were once enjoyed by north-central Washington locals and visiting anglers like myself have been shuttered. On the Snake and it’s iconic transboundary tributaries like the Grand Ronde and Clearwater, a slight uptick in this year’s run masks years of rock-bottom lows, with no solution in sight as long as these fish must run a three-hundred-mile gauntlet of abundant (and in some cases invasive) predators, gill nets, dams, warm water reservoirs and, of course, anglers.

Flowing into the mighty Columbia further downstream, the Cowlitz River and other southern Washington tributaries that once provided fall through spring opportunities for anglers looking to retain hatchery-origin fish for the barbeque are a ghost of their former fisheries.

The storied (and accessible to the bulk of our state’s populace) waters of Puget Sound are in similarly dire straits, with runs ESA-listed and fisheries now constrained to chasing the scraps of once robust but ultimately ineffectual hatchery programs using strictly Chambers Creek stock, smaller steelhead known for returning early in the winter or, after years of inbreeding, not at all. There are few budding bright spots for long-term recovery—thanks to dam removal on the Elwha, Nooksack and Pilchuck, cooperative habitat restoration most notably on the Nisqually and Skagit, as well as Wild Steelhead Gene Bank designations—if ocean conditions and a warming climate don’t deliver a death blow first.

And then there are the lawsuits, most recently frustratingly familiar litigation from the usual hardline suspects against an innovative broodstock program (regularly integrating eggs and sperm from native fish to create hardier hatchery offspring with a lower risk of diluting the wild gene pool) proposed with broad support from other conservation groups and local stakeholders.

It’s enough to make an angler hang up the waders, put the cover on the drift boat, and fall back on blackmouth, as I’ve done the past few winters. Except there’s little salmon salvation to be found on the salt these days due to similar closures.

So if this is the darkest moment yet for Washington steelhead, and for those who cherish them whether for sport, sustenance, connections to our natural and cultural heritage, or all of the above, where do we go from here?

I’m scratching my head, too. But if there’s one thing that’s clear from my more than a decade of experience in the conservation and political arena, it’s that we’re missing the bigger picture, and we can’t keep going down the same divided, disillusioned and effectively impotent path we’re on.

Across the region our track-record is stark: additional restrictions on recreational angling and lawsuits over hatcheries have not been enough to recover wild steelhead or secure sustainable fisheries. In fact, they may leave us with fewer advocates to fight for these anadromous trout, which have always been little-understood and largely under-prioritized compared to their cousins, the Pacific salmon—by decision makers but especially the general public.

Steelheaders and their advocacy groups have become much like Congress: stuck in our information silos and so busy bickering that we can’t address the elephants in the room.

Given the multiple facets of today’s steelhead crisis, changes to fishing regulations and hatchery programs are necessary. But alone it’s not enough to fixate on these topics while failing to reverse habitat loss and address predation, pollution and changing ocean and climate conditions. Without a strategic change of course and a more united front, we’ll fail both the fish and the fishermen.

The Advocates

Clad in the oversized neoprene waders of the day, I hooked my first Oncorhynchus mykiss sometime in the mid ‘90s side-drifting an orange corkie and yarn on the Green River. That fish went airborne and spit the hook, but soon after my father landed a bright buck with rose-colored cheeks and emerald shoulders—an unforgettable specimen. Since then, I’ve pursued steelhead with both gear and flies from my homewaters on the Skykomish to Alaska and Idaho; that is when time off from employment as a director at a regional conservation organization and work as a public affairs consultant allowed.

On top of my day jobs, and to connect my passion for steelhead with my political work experience, I served for six years on the Board of Directors for the Wild Steelhead Coalition. On nights and weekends I was a driving force for the WSC (not to be confused with the Wild Fish Conservancy or WFC), writing policy comments and action alerts, pitching press releases, coordinating the Steelhead Country film series and co-authoring the proposals that eventually led to major regulation changes for OP rivers in 2015[CG1] , including the end of anglers bonking wild steelhead. My name was not always front and center given the hats I wear, but few steelhead issues did not cross my desk.

In short, I know a thing or two about how the environmental, political and social sausage-making of conservation works, and what doesn’t. And from this vantage as a lifelong Evergreen State angler and deeply involved conservation professional, when I consider the greatest threats to wild steelhead and steelhead fisheries today, nothing concerns me more than the siloed state of our community.

Sustainable recreational, tribal and commercial fishing regulations; a “portfolio approach” of carefully-managed hatcheries providing quality harvest opportunities in certain rivers while other systems containing the best remaining habitat are set aside for wild fish recovery (and where possible, catch and release angling); reversing habitat loss from logging in the headwaters to suburban development in the lowlands to industrialization of the estuaries; all of this I still believe we can achieve to give these fish a chance at a comeback without entirely cutting them off from their best advocates: fishermen and women. But only by working together as a united movement of anglers, advocacy groups, agencies and tribes—even if that requires checking some of our ideals at the door.

Instead, lately we’re pitting gear vs. fly, tribal vs. non-tribal, hatchery vs. wild, guides vs. weekend warriors, boats vs. bankies, everyone vs. WDFW. Through my work, volunteer experience, friendships with dirtbag gear chuckers and Spey Jedis alike, and contacts in government, I see a steelhead community that’s so far down the path of infighting on so many fronts that as a whole we’re on the ropes without much semblance of strategy. And we’re losing the war for steelhead because of it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You see, this is not how other natural resource conservation sectors operate. When challenges are as much political and social debates as scientific ones, we can’t sue, bully or shame our way to a successful conservation movement.

Victory does not come by vanquishing adversaries, least of all fellow stakeholders or local government stewards, it comes by helping them be better for the benefit of the resource. As Sun Tzu argued in The Art of War, “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”

Practical examples abound. From the fallout of the 1990s Timber Wars to the forest collaboratives of today, loggers, environmentalists and agencies have found ways to move past entrenched grievances and work together on behalf of win-wins. Despite detraction from often out-of-state groups, in Washington, Oregon and Montana, local ranchers and wolf advocates have been doing the same in pursuit of coexistence. Effective advocacy campaigns use well-defined goals and appealing messages to marshal their ranks and garner influence with decision-makers in both agencies and elected offices.

Even as the bulk of salmon recovery proponents are increasingly banding together with a united focus on habitat degradation as the greatest cause of anadromous fish declines, steelheaders, guides and a few overzealous activist groups are off in a corner slugging it out over sideshows.

The Plan

Still, until the tribulations of 2020, it had seemed like we were making progress moving the needle, with efforts towards greater unity among steelhead allies finding traction.

After a decade of scant fish and wildlife funding from the Washington State Legislature, with enforcement officers and field scientists stretched so ashamedly thin that local non-profits were buying gear for them, funding was finally coming through thanks to “big tent” lobbying efforts in Olympia.

Despite generations of fighting, sometimes literally, recreational anglers, tribal commercial and ceremonial fishers, and their respective representatives were pledging unity. Leaders from both camps were forging genuine relationships and engaging in constructive dialogue to find middle ground to build on, maybe even enough to someday equitably address concerns around the sustainability of gill net fisheries for winter steelhead shielded by treaty law.

Informed by local outfitters, programs were also launched to better track and evaluate for-profit guiding, as the growing fleet of rafts towed by Toyota Tacomas with Montana and Idaho plates rolling through Forks and Hoquiam added to worries about the level of catch and release OP steelhead were being subjected to, estimated at as much as 130 percent of the run on the Sol Duc River in some years. [CG2] 

The same collaboration was happening among local anglers, guides, industry reps and conservation activists, led by the WSC and Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelheaders United. After years of dialogue, in May the state’s Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group (PSSAG) proposed the QuickSilver Portfolio, a fresh approach for managing Washington’s most loved-to-near-death rivers in the interest of both steelhead recovery and sustainable fisheries. The first of its kind at a basin-wide scale to earn support from so many diverse stakeholders, the proposal includes a mix of continued and new hatchery production as well as increased emphasis on wild steelhead recovery.

It’s exactly the kind of collaboratively-developed, river-by-river approach necessary for managing salmonids in the face complex social and environmental constraints, with broodstock hatchery programs supporting recreational and tribal fisheries in certain systems, such as the Skykomish, and other wild-only watersheds prioritizing steelhead recovery, such as the Sauk. A well-balanced portfolio that hedges our bets for the future while standing up to scientific and social scrutiny—idealism without illusion.

The Hardliners

Then, attacks began to trickle in. The Wild Fish Conservancy, serial litigants known for filing cases from Olympia to Southeast Alaska, unilaterally released a minority report, echoed through allies in The Conservation Angler’s Osprey newsletter. Despite WFC’s involvement in the PSSAG, and that collaboration’s overwhelming support for the QuickSilver Portfolio, it was clear the new model for steelhead conservation and fisheries management would face a fight from hardliners.

As word that the 2020-21 season might be even worse than previous years’ lows, other advocates began to revert to idealistic fallbacks. A tougher stance on fisheries and hatcheries was required they argued in the Osprey and email chains, even if it generates backlash and undermines forward-looking collaboration. Others pointed to the recent Artifishal documentary from Patagonia, which due to its apples-to-oranges comparisons of Rocky Mountain trout streams to coastal salmon and steelhead fisheries had largely been panned by Northwest anglers, tribes and elected leaders alike.

In July, after two full terms, I left the Board of the Wild Steelhead Coalition burnt out that old-guard activists were still failing to rise above self-righteousness to rally around the balance of biological and social considerations necessary for steelhead recovery under 21st century realities. Instead of picking the same old fights, I’d hoped by now to see us using strategy and simple salesmanship to better reach out to divided and increasingly disillusioned anglers, prospective tribal allies, overworked agency leaders, elected officials distracted by sexier causes, and everyday Washingtonians eager to be environmentally conscious, but still open to ordering “steelhead trout” when it’s on the menu.

Steelheaders are no doubt a stubborn bunch, myself included.

The Meeting

Then came the winter of our discontent.

In late November, WDFW biologists, managers and leadership outlined their projections for coastal steelhead runs this coming winter. Slides showing graphs with familiar downward trends were shown. Alternative restriction options shared, ranging from closing fishing before the coveted late winter/early spring timeframe, to expanded gear and no-fishing-from-a-boat restrictions throughout the season, to a blanket coastwide closure starting in a week.

Reports were that that similarly low steelhead returns combined with pandemic-induced budget shortfalls mean it’s unlikely a Skagit/Sauk season would offer anglers any saving grace. Worse, expectations are that poor ocean conditions will lead to low runs across the region continuing in 2022 and 2023.

The conversation and questions on WDFW’s call were surprisingly thoughtful. Many asked about tribal gill-netting, and if it too would be curtailed (most likely, yes). Some debated specific restrictions or pushed back against not being able to fish from floating devices—the most prevalent method on steelhead rivers these days, and a mainstay of guides and shot-in-the-arm for businesses in rural communities during the wet and dark of wintertime on the Washington coast.

One caller, writer and activist Dylan Tomine, a producer on the Artifishal film, eloquently compared fishing restrictions to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”, alleging that the Sol Duc, where hatchery plants have ended in favor of Wild Steelhead Gene Bank status, was the outlier to declining runs elsewhere specifically because its hatchery was closed. An idea worth consideration, but also an argument with logical weak spots given the boost that river received from the now discontinued Snyder Creek broodstock program. Not to mention Tomine’s inaccurate comparisons to the Skagit, where despite cessation of hatchery plants in 2014 recent returns have tracked similar to the coastal rivers with hatcheries: downward. Wild only rivers can work, but they’re no shortterm silver bullet.

Widespread habitat loss, convoluted research findings on hatchery impacts or lack thereof, tribal treaty obligations, orca life-support benefits, recreational fishing value for Washington’s economy exceeding a billion dollars and the need to keep anglers around as the fish’s loudest advocates, all complicate decisions over whether or not to have hatcheries. I’d generally like to see fewer of them, and the weight of biological science ESA law point us in that direction, but in turn I hope to see emphasis on running what hatcheries we do have as efficiently and responsibly as possible, with greater return on investment for both anglers and tribes. They certainly shouldn’t go away entirely.

I fired off an email to WDFW’s Fish Program Director and Regional Manager, thanking them for the forum, encouraging the formation of a new Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group in the vein of the PSSAG but with an expedited timeline, and offering support for Option #3: bait bans and more restrictive angling regulations, but stopping short of no-fishing-from-a-boat. It would be better to give folks a few months to fish with selective gear and from their boats, I argued, than close the season early. And most importantly, to use the goodwill from averting acrimonious closures as fuel for fresh talks aimed at changing the paradigm for coastal steelhead fisheries and recovery.

The Lawsuit

The following week, as if timed to pour salt in steelheader wounds, the Wild Fish Conservancy dropped their latest lawsuit, claiming unpermitted foul-play by WDFW in its actions to lay the groundwork for the Skykomish broodstock hatchery program suggested by the QuickSilver Portfolio with the backing of the PSSAG and groups ranging from Trout Unlimited and the Wild Steelhead Coalition to the Wildcat Steelheaders and Coastal Conservation Association.

There are details to the WFC’s case that deserve to be sorted out; namely did WDFW have proper NOAA Marine Fisheries Service permits for their actions, and if not, did those actions constitute “take” of Endangered Species Act listed wild steelhead (or alternatively, were those steelhead actually non-native to begin with as the offspring of hatchery strays trucked above impassable waterfalls?).

And while WFC’s breathless lawsuits and obstinate, no-compromise approach certainly undermines community-building and efforts to win steelhead powerful friends in Olympia, they are not all bad, as their leadership fighting against commercial fish farms has shown. Another lesson I’ve learned time and time again working in the conservation world is nothing is ever as simple as black and white.

Still, it’s naive to view this lawsuit as separate from the larger steelhead story. Runs are crashing, fisheries are closing, the angling and advocacy community is divided without a coherent message to WDFW much less real influence over other leaders at our state capitol, and here we are again infighting from courts to Facebook feeds to commissioners inboxes over another hatchery (in this case a broodstock program, an approach that from the Quinault Reservation to the Oregon Coast has been shown to be more effective than segregated hatchery programs like the much maligned Chambers Creeks effort). Or worse, how we fish during a given season.

In this sense, it’s is perhaps the Wild Fish Conservancy’s most shameful lawsuit yet. The latest example of Executive Director Kurt Beardslee and his team failing to see the forest beyond the trees. It hasn’t been perfect, but much of our community is now pushing for unity to address the steelhead crisis, exemplified by the model of the Quicksilver Portfolio: limited broodstock hatcheries balanced with wild recovery rivers. While WFC drops yet another lawsuit targeting a product of that collaboration.

Imagine how much habitat we could restore and reconnect through focused advocacy, fundraising and implementation efforts, the in-roads we could make with tribes and commercial fishers (perhaps around WFC’s own fish trap pilot project), the momentum from the angling community we could align behind a pragmatic approach to steelhead conservation and management, if we weren’t always rehashing old battles over hatcheries and fisheries.

If the greater goal of the WFC and every other wild fish group is to recover sustainable runs of wild steelhead (and salmon), we need to be working together with fellow anglers, tribes, agencies and elected leaders in strategic pursuit of that goal, not filing toxic lawsuits and bandying them about like they’re some sort of meaningful conservation action. Even if that collaboration requires some reasonable compromise; and even if that means for once not treating the ESA like a cudgel.

The Decision, and the Path Ahead

In the second week of December, WDFW announced the decision we’d nervously been waiting for: starting December 14th, all coastal steelhead waters would be under selective gear, no fishing from a floating devices rules, with many closing early, either March 1st or April 1st. The agency detailed it’s rational in a blog post soon after, stating:

“As fishery managers, we know that to preserve any coastal steelhead angling opportunity and recover wild fish in the future, we have to catch fewer fish right now. These measures help to support that.”

Many guides and outfitters, who had been pushing a more flexible river-by-river approach, felt targeted, even blindsided given the abbreviated process for such a weighty emergency rule-change. Some state Fish and Wildlife Commissioners, who oversee WDFW and its director, also grumbled of being caught off-guard, promising further discussion and opportunities for public input.

Still, given the obviously declining trends of costal steelhead runs and so many years of eroding fishing opportunity region-wide, can we truthfully say we didn’t see this coming?

While the final decision was not what I had called for, in conversations with fellow anglers, in Facebook posts from guides and advocacy groups, and on a Friday afternoon call with the Commission, I was generally heartened by the response. People were upset, sure, and a few were clearly going too far in their complaints, as they had in 2015 when selective gear, catch-and-release regulations were described as a looming catastrophe for the Forks economy and local livelihoods (they weren’t); wild fish conservation groups don’t have a monopoly on extremism or unwillingness to compromise.

Still, most steelheaders said they were going to make it work, that once again they were willing to make sacrifices to protect the fish without entirely losing remaining opportunities to connect with them, and the rainforest rivers they call home. COVID-willing, they were going to direct their clients to rent from local motels, eat at local restaurants and buy drinks at Blakeslee’s Bar and Grill to toast that memorable fish brought to hand or to drown the memory of the one that got away.

And so here we are: WDFW’s new regulations for coastal steelhead rivers have taken effect, and they may well be with us for longer than anyone would like, the agency included. From the Columbia and Snake to Oregon and Idaho, fishery managers across the Northwest will surely be watching, contemplating what to do next in the fact of their own declining runs.

If December 2020 was our low water mark, capping off years of division and acrimony among steelheaders with record low runs, widespread restrictions, new closures and familiar lawsuits, let’s recognize this moment for what it is: a fork in the river.

In one direction there is a very predictable future: more division among those who love steelhead, more litigation, more shortsighted selfishness, more infighting with each other, with agencies and tribes. Despite being a relatively small group of fish constituents as it is, we continue picking ourselves further apart until the feds and the ESA intervene, and that’s all she wrote: steelhead fisheries closed statewide with little chance at recovery anytime soon, if at all. It’s the future we deserve if we take this path.

The alternate path holds long odds—something any steelhead angler is familiar with—full of uncertainty, but also, possibility. As anglers, guides and advocates we roll with the recent punches and pivot towards the realization that only together do we stand a chance at recovering these most resilient of fish, let alone restoring our fisheries for them.

All sides will need to give; whether on accepting some hatchery closures in favor of more Wild Steelhead Gene Banks, as science and prudence suggest, or by accepting increased broodstock production on a few “opportunity” rivers, as economic, recreational and tribal treaty obligations mandate. If the Wild Fish Conservancy should give the QuickSilver Portfolio a chance and think twice before the next low-hanging fruit lawsuit, guides and industry groups should accept additional restrictions, and the reality that for-profit uses of a public resource are the first to be curtailed in response to scarcity. Anglers too should be willing to stomach giving up harvest or even catch-and-release in the name of steelhead recovery, as they already are.

This alternate path may sound idealist, even naïve. Maybe we steelheaders are too stubbornly set in our ways to change. But if we raise our heads beyond our infighting and look around, there’s evidence that big picture strategy and collaboration works better than either lawfare or bunkering down in our respective corners while the resource vanishes. Besides, at this point what do we have to lose?

It’s time for a paradigm shift to address our steelhead crisis. The me-first, my-way-or-the-highway approach has gotten us where we are today, and whether you’re a wild fish purist or a whack-and-stack ‘em hatchery hole hero, it’s not where we want to be.

Steelheaders exhibit a unique mix of tenacity and adaptability. The fish we pursue require us to keep casting through driving rain and frozen rod guides, changing gear and changing water, doggedly maintaining confidence that our moment will come if we just put in the effort. Let’s harness those greatest of steelhead angler attributes while we still can.

For the fish and for ourselves it’s not too late for a change of course. We need to build bridges among our brethren and tighten our messages around shared goals, turning strategies into steppingstones that lead towards recovery. Let’s take a step back and find our footing, then move forward together.

-Chase Gunnell