Throughout the southern half of their range, wild steelhead have experienced tremendous declines during the last century and a half. While many factors have contributed to their decline, overharvest in sport and commercial fisheries has been ubiquitous, and today most populations are depressed below 10% of their historic abundance. During the early and mid-20th century, sports fisherman harvest thousands of fish annually from rivers which today support runs numbering in the hundreds. As late as the 1980s anglers harvested more than 2,000 wild winter steelhead from the Nisqually, however early commercial fishing records tell us that even in the halcyon years anglers were fishing over runs that were a shadow of their former abundance.
Historic catch data tells the same story from Washington to California. In the first decade of commercial fishing effort, catches were unbelievably high, and in 1895 alone more than 40,000 winter steelhead were harvested from the Snohomish River, and harvest throughout much of Puget Sound was similarly high. However intense harvest and the rampant habitat degradation of the time rapidly depressed populations.
Despite the fact that the steelhead runs up and down the coast have continued to decline, the harvest of wild steelhead continues in both Washington and Oregon. BC and Alaska long ago implemented catch and release regulations on all wild steelhead and in 2010 California opted to close the Smith River to wild steelhead harvest. It had been the last river in the state with wild steelhead retention. These enlightened regulations contrast sharply with the management philosophies in Oregon and in particular Washington where the approach has been to harvest populations to the point of critical conservation concern, then close fishing altogether when populations tank.
The very premise of harvesting wild steelhead is biologically dubious, particularly in light of growing human populations and increased fishing pressure. Steelhead are iteroparous (repeat spawning) with low productivity relative to other salmon species owing to their protracted freshwater rearing. For decades the prevailing management philosophy was that of Maximum Sustained Yield (MSY), which explicitly seeks to reduce abundance through harvest to maximize the productivity of the stock. This philosophy has whittled away at the diversity and abundance of steelhead runs throughout the region, reducing steelhead populations to threadbare traces of their former glory and depriving them of much needed diversity and resilience.
In Puget Sound where rivers now close February 1st to protect ESA listed steelhead, wild harvest was allowed until 2001. Today the same story is playing out on the Olympic Peninsula where harvest continues on the “last best” despite declining returns which have routinely failed to meet minimum escapment goals. In 2004 the Wild Steelhead Coalition successfully lobbied WDFW to end all retention of wild steelhead in Washington State, however in the face of loud opposition concentrated in Forks, Washington, the department ultimately backed down and today anglers may harvest one wild steelhead per year in a handful of West End Rivers. Commercial harvest by tribal members also takes a significant proportion of the run and with pressure increasing each year on the Peninsula, there are doubts about the long term sustainability of the situation.