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Olympic Peninsula Steelhead Considered for ESA

If listing happens, fish win and anglers lose.

Olympic Peninsula Steelhead Considered for ESA

Steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout that live in the Pacific Ocean and run up freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Hagerty, USFWS)

A pair of Pacific Northwest conservation organizations have petitioned for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list Olympic Peninsula (O.P.) steelhead on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list. The Wild Fish Conservancy and the Conservation Angler submitted the petition on August 1, from which the NMFS has 90 days to take action.

Possible outcomes of the petition are a negative finding on the 90-day review, which would end the process; or a positive finding which would spur the process to go through a public comment period and additional reviews, which could ultimately lead to a listing on the ESA. An endangered listing on the ESA would effectively shut down fishing for O.P. steelhead.

“We have worked hard over the last decade to inform people of the declines and we should be doing more as anglers as well as other users of the resource to preserve it so that we don’t go the way of other rivers that have become ESA listed,” Rich Simms, of the Seattle-based Wild Steelhead Coalition, said. “We should always work for a proactive approach instead of a reactive approach, unfortunately we always seem to take the reactive and this is what happens. That’s the frustration.” 

Simms, Fly Fisherman's 2017 Conservationist of the Year, said he’s happy for the fish but would hate to see the listing happen.

“I always like to think we can rise above things and try to do the right things before something like this happens.”

A study published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management in November of 2021 outlined the struggles of O.P. steelhead over the past several decades, including results that indicated runs began earlier in the season and lasted for longer periods of time on Quillayute, Hoh, and Queets rivers. It also showed that run sizes had come down from tens of thousands of fish in the historical period to mere thousands from 1980-2017. Specifically, the Quillayute run declined by about 38 percent, the Hoh by about 69 percent, the Queets by about 50 percent, and the Quinault River’s run had been reduced by about 63 percent in those decades.

Reasons for the population’s decline include poor ocean conditions, angler and commercial harvest, and habitat degradation.

Protections for O.P. steelhead have steadily increased over the past decade, including reducing the period for keeping wild O.P. steelhead starting in the 2010-2011 season, followed by the full closure on keeping wild O.P. steelhead beginning with the 2016-2017 season. Catch-and-release fishing for O.P. steelhead is currently legal as conditions and run sizes allow, per Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife criteria (or National Park Service rules for waters in Olympic National Park).

Quality intact habitat remains throughout Olympic Peninsula watersheds, much of it permanently protected, according to a 2021 Fly Fisherman magazine article by Simms and Greg Fitz of the WSC. If adequate numbers of wild steelhead were able to spawn, these fish should survive and possibly even rebound.

Simms thinks there’s a good chance that these fish will get listed with this petition. In 2007, Puget Sound’s steelhead population of steelhead (about 100 miles east of the O.P.) was listed as threatened on the ESA, along with some other nearby salmon populations at various times.

several spey rod handles with reels lined up upright on a wet rock
An endangered listing on the ESA would effectively shut down fishing for O.P. steelhead. (Photo courtesy of Brian Bennett)

In the event that O.P. steelhead are listed as “threatened” rather than “endangered,” limited fishing could still remain. For example, fishing for the Skagit River steelhead “Distinct Population Segment” (DPS) is currently allowed for certain steelhead runs in the Skagit drainage, despite being part of the protected Puget Sound steelhead DPS.

What an ESA Listing Means

The ESA has two types of listing: endangered and threatened. Endangered means that a population or entire species “is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Certain activities are banned with an endangered listing including “take” of a species, like harassing, hunting, shooting, capturing, trapping, killing, collecting, wounding, harming, or pursuing, intentional or not, along with banning of activities that degrade the species’ habitat.


Threatened means a population or entire species is “likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.” There are fewer prohibitions on threatened species, which are determined on a case-by-case basis.

There can be exceptions to ESA rules. Native American tribes, for example, can petition the NMFS with a plan for limited harvest, and can use ESA-listed species for subsistence or ceremonial fishing. Such exceptions have been approved for protected salmon in Washington in the past.

For more information on the potential ESA listing, click here.

“My hope is that that this petition actually makes people stand up, take notice and roll up their sleeves; it’s now or never for wild steelhead. ” Simms said. “And, we as anglers, become a little more open to changes, become stronger advocates for the resource, and become willing to put our effort and resources into it to make sure we have fish and opportunities for the future.”

Joshua Bergan is Fly Fisherman’s digital editor.

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