Washington Wild Steelhead managers expect inshore runs to continue a slow overall recovery from bedrock in the coming winters and spring, but four rivers are projected to remain below discharge goals and could be closed if recent seasons are an indication.
That quartet includes the Willapa, Chehalis, Humptulips, and Queets-Clearwater, while the Quillayute, Hoh, and Upper Quinault are expected to easily meet runoff needs.
WDFW revealed the preliminary 2022-23 forecasts last night during a two-hour-plus Zoom-based town hall and presentation. They say about 30,544 wild winters are returning across the coast, which is an improvement from 28,406 in 2021-22 and the all-time low of 25,723 in 2020-21.
By comparison, the highest mark in recent years is just under 50,000 in 2015, the year of The Blob, which starved snow-fed runoff streams, and for two years this millennium, they saw more than 60,000 fish.
The release of the forecasts is part of an ongoing public process that also includes input from anglers, guides, communities, and other stakeholders and will culminate after Thanksgiving with a decision on the upcoming season. Early options WDFW showed a range from a coast-wide closure to last year’s regulations with fewer days on the water to salmon- and salmon-targeted fisheries in specific waters.
Indeed, one of the issues will again be whether abundant nursery fish can be caught in fragments of systems that are otherwise expected to be below the escape.
For example, last winter saw nearly 3,800 clipped steelhead return to the Skookumchuck, a tributary of the fully closed Chehalis watershed, with nearly 2,300 of those surplus fish in local lakes and tribal food banks and non-tribal; 1,002 returned to Humptulips, which was also closed, and 600 fish were left over.
Not being able to access the headwaters of the nursery in the rivers, where you have to fish them, makes the point of even raising them in the first place, although I suppose it might be cheaper to let the ocean raise them to the same size. if metal lake fishing becomes a bigger thing.
WDFW Regional Fisheries Director James Losee said the agency is trying to figure out how to get access to hatchery fish and put them in fishermen’s grills instead of surplus.
The situation with Washington’s inshore wild steelhead fisheries has not been good in recent years. Biologists blame a mix of poor freshwater and ocean conditions that have combined to affect several year classes. They also now project that deep-sea habitats in the North Pacific will continue to shrink due to ocean warming.
In response, WDFW imposed unprecedented fishing restrictions the past two seasons, including general no-fishing-from-a-vessel rules and bait bans, among other measures, in 2020-21.
Fishing in the Chehalis, Humptulips, Queets-Clearwater and Quinault was completely closed last winter because they were expected to be below escapement goals, but vessels were allowed in parts of the Quillayute system, while anglers they could fish in the rivers of the Hoh and Willapa system.
Yes, tribal fisheries have also shrunk, according to a rare glimpse into the data WDFW was allowed to share last night. Tribes such as the Quinaults and Quileutes completely reduced or severely cut their gillnets last winter, with catches less than 50 percent of what had been projected before the season began, state filings showed. ‘yesterday night.
At its peak, 152 participants tuned into WDFW’s Thursday night Zoom meeting. They shared a mix of proposals, questions and utter frustration with the agency.
Among the latter category was Ravae O’Leary of Angler’s Obsession Fly Fishing Guide Service in Forks, who reminded state managers that they had closed the fishery early last season, cutting off March and how they were going to solve this season? At the time, WDFW’s fear was that they were returning far fewer wild steelhead than expected, but they eventually did more, though not by much. Still, it helped WDFW’s inshore preseason reach 5% of how many fish were showing up on the gravel. However, declines continued in the Chehalis.
This year’s Quillayute forecast is again the strongest on the coast at 9,344, which is 3,444 fish above release requirements. This would provide a large cushion for fishing impacts. For runs that are below spawning needs, WDFW draws from its statewide steelhead management plan guidance and looks at whether impacts can be kept at 10 percent of the run or less restricting equipment or days on the water. If not, a shutdown is requested.
There were also calls to keep systems open with late salmon runs and to open the upper end of the Skookumchuck for steelhead; says the Wild Fish Conservancy, which is calling on the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the Olympic Peninsula steelhead as endangered or threatened, is leading the conversation; and requests for Oregon-style breeding programs.
“I took a ton of notes,” said Kelly Cunningham, WDFW Fish Program Manager.
Other parts of the presentation detailed the return time of the myriad of Chehalis Basin tours; the long-term productivity of smolts from one of its stocks, Bingham Creek; a measure of enforcement diversity within watersheds; long-term adult returns for the Puyallup and Nisqually; and ocean indicators.
Cunningham also encouraged attendees to stay involved in the process.
Next up is a Fish and Wildlife Commission Fish Committee staff briefing on Oct. 27, then a second town hall in early November to review potential regulations for this season.
Fish and Wildlife Commission members will also be briefed in several meetings next month, WDFW will meet with tribal commanders to finalize management plans for the season, and a third town hall will be held in late November before the seasons are announced in December.