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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

April 3, 2013 at 9:58 AM

Group “Occupy Skagit” looks at reviving Skagit-Sauk River spring steelhead catch and release fishery

There was a time long ago when spring time brought out many anglers to the Skagit River in search of some huge native steelhead.

As the wild steelhead started to dwindle in the 1970s the Skagit fishery switched to catch and release only in the 1990s and about five years ago it was completely shutdown.

Several anglers have now formed a group called “Occupy Skagit” to try and revive the Skagit catch and release fishery, including now retired state Fish and Wildlife biologist Curt Kraemer of Marysville.

Their intent is to try and convince state Fish and Wildlife to reopen the catch and release fishery

The group is planning a meet and greet at 9 a.m. followed by a “wade-in” 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 6 at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport.

After reviewing the evidence, the group’s belief is that a well managed, catch-and-release season on the Skagit/Sauk Rivers would not be inconsistent with the recovery of its wild winter steelhead.

During the “wade-in” period some in the group will cast hook-less lures to mimic fishing in remembrance of foregone opportunities. Steve Fransen, retired state Fish and Wildlife biologist to answer the many questions on the various online bulletin boards.

The group also is compiling a list of supporters to take with them the following week to the state Fish and Wildlife Commissioner’s meeting.

The road to making this happen could be long as state officials must first agree with the plan, and then go to federal agencies since wild steelhead in Puget Sound are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Leland Miyawaki, the manager at the Orvis Store in Bellevue emailed this item below that provides some insight on their cause:

It’s pretty clear to those of us who fish that no fish ever benefited by being hooked and caught by an angler. Complete preservation, of fish and their habitat, is the perfect solution from a fish’s point of view. But OS is not about the fish’s point of view.

OS is about steelheaders who would rather fish than see their favorite river closed to fishing forevermore. Realistically, that is the present outlook simply because there is no plan, and only a vague intent to plan, to ever open the Skagit to fishing for wild steelhead again. OS is about developing such a plan, as soon as possible, so that anglers may fish the Skagit again in their lifetimes.

The talk about recovery and letting the fish recover before fishing again is a discussion based on false assumptions and unrealistic expectations. Wild Skagit steelhead are a population in no particular need of recovery. What, you say, it’s consistently produced runsizes lower than the escapement goal. Therefore that must mean the population needs to recover to a higher level, and must do so before any fishing can resume. Enter the false assumptions and unrealistic expectations.

Wild Skagit steelhead are the most abundant in Puget Sound. Since 1978 the runsize has averaged 7,822 fish, ranging from a low of around 2,600 to a high of 16,000. The spawning escapement has averaged 6,857 steelhead after harvest, both incidental and directed. As far as anyone can know for certain, this variation in population size is completely normal. There are good years, and there are bad years. Freshwater floods and droughts limit the outmigrating smolt population from year to year. The freshwater habitat has not really changed much in the last 30 years. Some parts have degraded further, and some parts have improved. On balance it would be hard to quantify any significant change. And marine survival factors limit the percent of smolts that survive to adulthood and return from the ocean each year. Given what we know about run sizes and escapement over a more than 30 year period, there is no logical reason to believe that wild Skagit steelhead runs will ever in the future consistently average above the present spawning escapement floor value.

The escapement goal is an artifact of uncertainty. The aggregate model that escapement goals were developed from in the 1980s calculated a Skagit spawning escapement goal far above 20,000. Since that seemed impractable and unrealistic, so biologists rather arbitrarily picked 10,000 as an escapement guideline. In the 1980s when marine survival was higher than it is now, that value appeared realistic. As more data were collected and analyzed, it was apparent from spawner – recruit analysis that the MSY/MSH escapement goal would be much lower, slightly less than 4,000. That seems low for such a large river basin, so the co-managers settled on 6,000 as a buffered escapement floor for some interim period. The take home message in this paragraph is that no relationship exists between the Skagit wild steelhead spawning escapment goal and the actual productivity and capacity of the Skagit River basin to produce steelhead. Please re-read the last sentence and be certain that you understand it.

The last paragraph means that the Skagit wild steelhead spawning escapement goal is arbitrary, and possibly capricious. It’s meaning is primarily make believe then. This leads me to the question of for what purpose are Skagit steelhead managed? Is it strictly species preservation, like a petting zoo, except you can’t actually pet the animals? Or is the purpose to conserve the population for the mutual long-term benefit of the species as well as human social and economic benefits. If the purpose is the former, then the present course is the one to stay on. If the latter, then a change is required.

OS is an evidence-based approach to steelhead management. Studies show that incidental mortality is significantly lower than the 10% value presently used by WDFW and NMFS. Skagit steelhead productivity shows that CNR seasons from 1981 through 2009 have no measurable effect on population size. Even the combination of CNR incidental mortality and the limited directed harvest indicate that fishing mortality has had no measurable effect on wild steelheaad population abundance over the past 30 years.

OS does not propose CNR fishing the Skagit run into extinction. The evidence strongly suggests that isn’t possible. OS is simply pointing out that, above some arbitrarily selected threshold runsize, mangement regulations could permit CNR steelhead seasons to be implemented with no measurable risk to future population abundance. And during that period, anglers can obtain the social benefits associated with CNR fishing, and the local economy can benefit from added fishing activity. These benefits can be enjoyed while simultaneously conserving wild Skagit steelhead for as long as steelhead habitat is also conserved. It’s just about that simple, but for the way the PS steelhead ESA listing aggregates Skagit steelhead. Just because change is hard does not mean change is not possible.

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