A run of priceless giant wild steelhead is being sold for $9 per pound
Wild steelhead protection in the Pacific Northwest has long been a conversation between social ethics and the complexities of conservation issues including habitat, hatcheries, harvest, and hydroelectric dams. On the Hoh River—remarkable to fly fishers especially for its winter run of wild steelhead—it's easy to see that of all these issues, harvest is by far the most significant factor in regard to declining returns. On the face of it, human consumption should be the easiest of all the "fixes"—but then, nothing is easy when it comes to saving the Pacific Northwest's most precious gamefish.
The Hoh originates at the Hoh Glacier on 7,962-foot Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park. The river expires into the Pacific and, on its journey to its oceanic outlet it sees gravel bars, meanders, side channels, and canyons that combine to create the ideal habitat for wild steelhead.
Researchers at the Wild Salmon Center estimate the Hoh winter run in 1920 consisted of 35,000 to 59,000 wild steelhead. In stark contrast, the current run is estimated to be between 3,500 and 5,000 fish annually, less than 10 percent of historical averages.
The habitat on the Hoh River is some of the best in North America for wild steelhead, and the upper reaches are preserved in one of the most complete temperate rainforests in the world. Although hatchery steelhead are released every year into the Hoh, the timing of the run of hatchery fish does not coincide with the winter run of wild steelhead. There is no physical hatchery operation on the river, and it suffers from no dams. So what has caused the precipitous declines of wild Hoh steelhead? In a single word, harvest.
Retention statistics, recorded over many decades, reveal a liberal harvest on the Hoh that is based more on the continuation of legal entitlements, rather than on an acute concern over the exhaustion of a species.
In 1974, Federal Judge George Boldt (in the case of United States v. Washington) issued a historic ruling reaffirming the rights of Washington's Native American tribes to fish "usual and accustomed grounds and stations." The Boldt Decision allocated 50 percent of the annual catch to treaty (landowning) tribes and enraged commercial and sport fishermen as well as the non-treaty tribal population because the federal order demanded that the state take action to limit harvest by all non-treaty fishermen.
The Hoh River is one of few rivers in North America where anglers can still retain wild steelhead—one wild steelhead per angler per year by a non-tribal member. The tribal harvest is primarily through gillnetting, a highly effective method of harvest.
Last year, roughly half of the Hoh's estimated 4,300 returning, wild winter steelhead were captured by tribal gillnetters. These retained fish were sold at market for human consumption and/or pet food production, bringing anywhere from $1.40 to $14.00 per pound, with a typical steelhead ranging anywhere from 12 to 18 pounds, with some fish as big as 20 to 30 plus pounds.
The truth of the cumulative harvest of the steelhead is in the escapement numbers. It is the escapement numbers that ensure the future of wild steelhead. Escapement goals are set annually by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. However, 10 out of the last 20 years, the Hoh River has failed to reach its escapement goals, and the river's wild steelhead run has declined an estimated 50 to 75 percent since the 1950s, and an additional 30 percent since the 1980s.
The population decline is severe. According to the Wild Steelhead Coalition (wildsteelheadcoalition.org), part of the problem is that the annual management plan is set after the opening of steelhead season. This extraordinarily bad timing contributes to inaccurate run projections, and results in open harvest seasons at times when the reality is that there is no harvestable surplus. The numerical history speaks volumes as to how future management can increase the return of the wild steelhead to the waters of the West Coast.
The current (and unfortunate) matter at hand is that the state of Washington and the Hoh Tribe are caught in a gridlock between escapement goals and a sustainable harvest. Meanwhile, the state's wild steelhead harvest has been an enormously overwhelming controversy, leaving tribal and non-tribal members and sports fishermen deeply divided.
The controversy is one similar to that of global climate change. Although science proves that there are severely declined wild steelhead populations, it has been difficult to alter the factors of human impact with "fairness" to all involved parties in mind. It has proved simpler to continue on the same flawed path where everyone gets their "fair share" of continually declining runs.
The truth is, the current path will bring Hoh River winter steelhead to extirpation within in the next 20 years. The issue is critical, to say the least, and the sport fishermen, as well as general environmental interest groups, have proposed various plans of action to state regulators. Plausible solutions include restricting the harvest, increasing escapement goals, better management of forest lands surrounding the Hoh River to result in a more ideal spawning environment, the elimination of so-called "larger impact" sport-fishing techniques (including the use of bait and the elimination of fishing from the boat on certain sections of river), and further professional guide restrictions.
In the past, other rivers have even used complete closures as a Band-Aid solution, but these types of shut-downs lead to the loss of interest by sportsmen, and as a result loss of funds and public pressure needed to maintain momentum toward improved conservation of the resource.
Jeff Brazda (a respected Olympic Peninsula fly-fishing guide) believes that sport fishermen aren't really the problem, but instead part of the solution: "The more we point the finger at the sport fishers, the more we must not want to fish, because that will be the result, we will regulate ourselves right out of the picture. We must turn the popularity of steelhead fishing into the recovery of steelhead angling."
The mission of Washington State's wild steelhead management needs to place focus on providing a fully sustainable species for future -generations, not on dividing up meager returns between legally entitled parties.
Tangible change is plausible. However, any relevant change would require Washington State, tribal members, involved industry, anglers, guides, and special-interest groups to work together to construct a truly viable solution to restore wild steelhead. It's no simple feat.
Eric Paulson is a full-time outfitter and guide in Montana and in the winter on the Olympic Peninsula.