January 04, 2017
In 2001, a licensed angler could kill up to 30 wild steelhead per year in the state of Washington. In spite of the drastic and obvious statewide decline of the species, fisheries managers still allowed obsolete regulations. That same year, the Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC) formed in Seattle. Under the leadership of cofounder Rich Simms, the group set a top priority: to stop all intentional sport harvest of wild steelhead.
“In Washington, there’s an awareness around salmon because they are a food fish and such a part of Northwest culture. Steelhead were never considered food. It’s always been anglers who appreciate them,” says Simms. “What’s so special about this fish is their natural history and the niches they inhabit, the journey they take out to the Pacific, and then, their return to find your fly.”
The story of Pacific Northwest steelhead is one of the most compelling in nature, defined by the great return and the fact that a only a lucky few might catch even one. How many trout are there in Montana’s Madison River? More than 3,000 per mile. But with steelhead, an entire river system might support 2,000 fish or fewer. Yet, in spite of their mythical life cycle, the plight of steelhead doesn’t capture the public eye in the same way other wildlife crises do.
“Many people in Washington don’t realize this fish is one of our state symbols,” Simms says. “Steelhead don’t have the ‘panda effect.’ If a state bird, like the goldfinch, collapsed, there would be an outcry. The problem with steelhead is that the only people who really see them are anglers. We admire the beauty, the mystery, and simply release them to disappear back into the water. It’s pretty amazing when you have that opportunity to do that, but not everyone gets that chance. That’s why it’s important for anglers to lead the charge.”
Connecting people to the species is tough. But WSC pushed for policy reform, increasingly gathering momentum from sportsmen. They were initially met with dismissal from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), but at molasses-like speed, change came. Over time, the regulations shifted down to five fish harvested per angler per year, and then to one fish.
“There’s a strong heritage of commercial fishing in this state,” says Simms. “It’s been a slow transition to shift the paradigm to truly manage steelhead as a gamefish. We keep wanting to use pure harvest models like they do in the management of food fish. We really have to manage wild steelhead for abundance, rather than how many we can catch above some magical escapement number. That’s a critical thing.”
In December 2015, WDFW did something truly remarkable. The agency made the harvest of wild steelhead by sportsmen entirely illegal. The zero-harvest regulations were the culmination of a 14-year battle by Rich Simms for “wild steelhead release, statewide, no exceptions.”
That remarkable accomplishment earned him a nomination for Fly Fisherman’s 2017 Conservationist of the Year award.
“More than 50 grassroots volunteers nationwide were nominated by their peers,” said Fly Fisherman editor Ross Purnell. “After careful review by a nine-person selection committee, it became clear that Rich’s years of dedication and his eventual success at eliminating sport harvest of steelhead in Washington needed to be recognized and amplified.”
Sage, Redington, and RIO sponsored the award, donating $10,000 to the Wild Steelhead Coalition in recognition of Simms and his efforts.
It’s somehow fitting that a company based in the Olympic Peninsula and immersed in the steelhead culture ended up writing a check to the Wild Steelhead Coalition.
“We’re a business full of passionate anglers with a deep commitment to give back to the resource that supports our livelihood,” said Travis Campbell, president & CEO of Far Bank Enterprises, the parent company of Sage, Redington, and RIO. “Steelhead are our ‘home’ fish. We’re fortunate in that there are a number of organizations in the Northwest that are strong voices for steelhead conservation. Wild Steelhead Coalition has been unwavering and powerful in their commitment to protecting the species and we are proud to partner with them on those efforts.”
The Wild Steelhead Coalition (wildsteelheadcoalition.org) is now working toward increasing returns of wild West Coast steelhead through other legislative means, such as reducing the impacts of stocked fish in rivers with wild steelhead populations, combating habitat loss, and removing human-constructed barriers to migration.
Simms, an avid steelheader since his childhood in Poulsbo, Washington, has served in numerous WSC leadership roles—all voluntary—from president to sitting on the board of directors. He’s also served as a member of the North Coast Steelhead Advisory Group, a citizen advisory group to WDFW.
Simms helped establish the first Wild Steelhead Gene Bank in Washington, which led to five more such designations. Rivers designated as a Wild Steelhead Gene Bank are managed exclusively for their wild steelhead populations, and cannot be undermined by stocked hatchery fish.
A humble man, Simms was shocked when he learned he was the recipient of the award, but the recognition didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows him. His colleagues wrote in his nomination: “Rich is still the most enthusiastic, collaborative, and selfless person sitting at any steelhead conservation table. Much of the work he’s done lacks the sex appeal and glamour of fighting extraction projects or doing large-scale restoration projects, but it has been critically important work that has gradually and substantially changed how Washington manages its state fish and an iconic species on the brink of collapse.”
Small, cumulative successes are what drive Simms. Even when he responds to a question, his answers are slow, like he’s turning a Rubik’s Cube to get everything to lock into just the right place. Aside from collaboratively designing an organization for creating positive change for wild steelhead, Simms designs some of the most sophisticated passenger planes on the planet. His career as an industrial designer for Boeing requires problem solving at the most minute scales.
“We design safe products for the public so that they can visit loved ones. We fly people all over the world while they have a glass of wine at nearly 500 miles per hour,” says Simms. “To me, that’s an amazing thing. Just being a teammate in developing an interior for the new 787 was pretty cool. I was the project manager and lead designer for what we call the various ‘interaction points’ aboard the airplane.
My philosophy was: How can we create a stronger brand image based on the user interaction points aboard the airplane? I’m very confident in what I have contributed, but it takes a lot of talented people to make something that great. That has blended into my philosophy in developing WSC.”
“Success” is a dangerous and shifting word in terms of conservation. But it’s perhaps his nontraditional background in design that has bolstered his ability to find success in steelhead advocacy. Conservation organizations often lean on scientists to set the agenda and on professional fundraising to support efforts. But some of the most intriguing and effective conservation efforts on the planet come from people with niche specialties far outside these norms.
“I like the multidisciplinary and creative side of it, thinking differently about how to approach a problem,” Simms says. “You’re taught a problem-solving process in industrial design, which is really important. But to really gain tremendous value from it, you want to think of it as an opportunity solving process. That puts you into a proactive role of discovering new opportunities, to make things more meaningful and to add value.”
What Simms has manifested is conservation in the most concrete sense. Not mere fluffy social media #conservation: real results, policy‑driven conservation that translates to meaningful, tangible change. How do people—no matter how good their intentions—move from mere feel-good recreational pursuits, social media, and talking a good game to actual, hard-hitting conservation? What does real action look like? How can we bring meaning and weight to that oft-abused word, “conservation”?
“You have to release yourself from the equation. Sometimes I think we expect too much. We live in this arena of promoting our successes, instead of promoting what we can do better,” Simms says. “What I mean by that is: This isn’t about you. There’s an angler’s hierarchy of needs, say, starting with, ‘I want to catch a fish.’ Then, ‘I want to catch lots of fish, or a big fish.’ There’s the self-actualization point. There are people who will cut their barbs off just to feel the pull of a fish. It’s bigger than you and your needs. That’s something we all have to consider. I want to see it shift in my lifetime. I want to see my children go out and catch-and-release a wild steelhead. I’ve had one kid do it and I’m working on the other two.”
With his experience and knack for progress, Simms offers perspective to other conservation groups, whether focused on steelhead or other species. “Celebrate the small incremental successes, but keep the goal in mind,” he says. “Change is slow in the world of wild steelhead conservation, but that’s accompanied by an urgent agenda, and an expectation from the angling community for a silver bullet approach. Everyone thinks, ‘If we could just fix this, it would change everything.’ And really, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are so many moving parts. Sometimes the biggest task is helping the angling public understand the complexity.”
But probably his great advice to everyone involved in conservation is based on old-fashioned persistence.
“The big key is: Don’t give up. I’m a steelheader, so I never give up. If I didn’t have persistence of faith, I’d be a very lonely angler.”
Sarah Grigg (sarah-grigg.com) is a writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana. This is her third profile column in an ongoing series titled “Rising Tides.”