By The Wild Steelhead Coalition
In September 2011, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, the Swinomish Tribe, and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe prepared Draft Report: Stock Status and Harvest Management Plan for Steelhead Returning to the Skagit River for the 2011-2012 Run Period. This is a draft document and it is clearly stated on the first page that “This is a preliminary plan that has not yet been reviewed or agreed to by tribal co-managers. The information is likely to be refined after co-manager review and input. Any sport fishing rule changes required will be put in place via the emergency fishing rule process.”
This is a very important document that tribal and sport fishers alike should be very concerned about. The Skagit Basin fishery has been experiencing significant declines of wild steelhead numbers and has resulted in early closures of sport fishing seasons in recent years. It is important to understand that within this article the Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC) is only summarizing this draft report. Please note that the WSC has many concerns about the management plans and conservation efforts related to Skagit Basin wild steelhead stocks, and we are working diligently on these issues via the appropriate channels.
The 20-page report is broken down into Introduction, Management Objectives (includes wild fish population goals, Fishery goals, and Hatchery Fish Production Goals), Fishery Goals, Preseason Forecast of Abundance, Wild Steelhead Stock Status and Fishery Performance (includes Expected Harvest Rates), Fishery Management Plan (broken down into Tribal Fishery and Sport Fishery), In-Season Fishery Management, Monitoring, and Enforcement. The Introduction explains that this document specifies the procedures under which the co-management parties agree to manage the 2011-2012 winter steelhead fisheries in the Skagit River Basin.
Skagit Management Objectives
The Management Objectives section states: “For wild steelhead, the management objective since 1994 has been to limit the catch of wild steelhead to less than 16% of the wild run size.”
Since the poor wild steelhead return in the 1999-2000 season, the co-managers have adopted a floor escapement level. After the 2000-2001 season, the floor escapement level was set at 6,000 wild steelhead, meaning if escapement of wild steelhead is less than this floor escapement level then fisheries directed at wild steelhead would not be opened. Looking at the escapement numbers over the past decade (the report includes several very informational data tables), the declining trend of returning wild steelhead is evident.
Next, under Management Objectives, Fishery Goals it states that: “Because of the uncertainty regarding the MSH (maximum sustainable harvest) escapement level for Skagit wild winter steelhead, and the lack of in-season data on sports catch and run size, both the sport and the tribal fisheries will be managed according to fishing schedules that are set preseason and are not adjusted during the season.” This section also states that the steelhead run size forecasted for the 2011-2012 season is 4,265 wild steelhead and 918 hatchery steelhead.
Take note that the wild steelhead return forecast of 4,265 is below the floor escapement level of 6,000 fish, and will likely affect the sport fishing season on the Skagit River Basin this season. Because of this and the fact that Puget Sound wild steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the tribes and the state have designated their fishing schedules for the 2011-2012 season with particular concern for incidental catch of wild steelhead. Interestingly, the document notes that these schedules and the impact on steelhead stocks will be evaluated post-season and will not be adjusted during the season. Although controversial for how this schedule affects wild fish run timing, this section notes that the scheduled fishing season coincides with the return timing of hatchery steelhead.
The Management Objective, Hatchery fish Production Goals section identifies the total number of steelhead smolts to be released from the Marblemount Hatchery. In the 2011-2012 season there will be 229,000 smolts released, and this will require about 150 adult spawners collected from the Marblemount Hatchery and the Baker River Trap.
Preseason Forecasts of Abundance
In short, the forecast for wild adult steelhead run size was calculated on “average, age specific brood year adult return rates, using the 1998-2008 brood year data (table 3).” The WSC would like to note that this forecast is based on a relatively short data set of 10 years when wild steelhead numbers were already on the decline.
For the Hatchery Steelhead Forecast section it is stated that: “We used available return year age data, developed age specific smolt release year return rates, and calculated average smolt to adult return rates for all corresponding release years (Table 5).” More importantly, the draft states that the average smolt to adult return rate for 1984-1993 was 1.76% and for 1999-2006 was 0.47%.
This is a significant drop in returning hatchery steelhead! The bottom line, co-managers used the average of return rates since release year 1999 (to present). Again, the hatchery steelhead return for the 2011-2012 season is a mere 918 fish.
Wild Steelhead Stock Status & Fishery Performance
The next section, Wild Steelhead Stock Status and Fishery Performance, clearly affirms that the WDFW has implemented a non-retention rule for Skagit Basin wild steelhead during recreational fisheries.
This part of the draft document also states that expected release mortality from recreational wild steelhead encounters for the 2011-2012 run-year is approximately 0.313% (about 13 wild fish at the preseason forecast run size). The draft does not explain how this mortality estimate is derived.
Fishery Management Plan for 2011-12
The Fishery Management Plan section follows and displays catch allocations and management periods for the 2011-2012 season. Of significant concern of the WSC, the draft report explains: “For wild steelhead on the Skagit, which the co-managers have redefined as one population (i.e. there are not separate “summer” and “winter” wild spawning populations), the ending date has been set as June 30.” Basically, this date is set to define the wild steelhead catch allocation period for management planning, so the 2012-2013 management plan will likely begin on June 30, 2012.
The draft report explains that for hatchery steelhead, the allocation periods are different. The Fishery Management Plan section states: “This is because two distinct populations of hatchery steelhead – Chambers Creek winters and Skamania summers – have been planted in or near the Skagit, so, to evaluate these programs, they are accounted for separately. For Skagit Bay and River, the winter-run hatchery steelhead catch allocation period runs from November 1 through April 30, and the summer-run hatchery steelhead catch allocation period runs from May 1 through October 31. WDFW has regulations for recreational steelhead fishing that are in effect June 1 through April 30, which encompass most of both the summer-run and winter-run hatchery steelhead catch allocation periods.”
Tribal Fishery Management
The following section in the document is for Tribal Fishery. On this draft, the Tribal Fishery section is blank.
Recreational Fishery implications
The Sport Fishery section follows and basically refers to the WDFW’s Sport Fish Rules – “Fishing in Washington”, 2011-2012 pamphlet edition. This segment also refers to Table 9 within the document, and this is of special interest to all sport fishermen who plan to visit the Skagit during the 2011-2012 season.
Under this draft plan, Skagit recreational fisheries will be closing early (February 1) on many popular steelhead fishing areas (See page 7 rivers list and Table 9 sport fishing seasons in the draft document!). The document clearly states: “Emergency rules governing sport fishing seasons for the following rivers and sections will be enacted by the WDFW in the 2011-2012 winter game fish seasons. These regulations will be put into effect due to forecasted returns below the floor escapement value in order to reduce impacts on wild steelhead. Depending on in-season evaluation, WDFW may institute additional restrictions on the suite of sport seasons as needed by emergency regulation.”
In-Season Fishery Management, Monitoring & Enforcement
Following the Sport Fishery section are the In-Season Fishery Management, Monitoring, and Enforcement sections. The In-Season Fishery management section has no detail, but shows an outline of: Co-manager communication plan, Data sharing timeline, In-season fishery change procedures, and In-season update (which states that there will be no in-season update of either hatchery or wild run sizes).
The Monitoring segment is very short and explains that the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle Tribes will collect data from tribal fisheries, including the catch of hatchery versus wild origin steelhead. The Monitoring section also notes that the WDFW will attempt to collect scale samples by recruiting recreational sport fishing volunteers during the 2011-2012 season.
Lastly, the Enforcement section heading is present, but there is not content related to this section in the draft document.
Skagit Steelhead Data
The remainder of this draft plan entails multiple tables of data related to Skagit hatchery steelhead and Skagit wild steelhead (pages 12-19). These pages are an excellent resource and if you have read this far, the WSC highly recommends you study these tables!
As mentioned previously this draft report also includes tables for the sport fishing seasons on the Baker, Cascade, Sauk, Suiattle, and Skagit Rivers for the 2011-2012 winter game fish season (page 8-10). These pages will be of specific interest for those recreational sport-fishers as well as those tracking the current trend and concerned with the future of wild steelhead within the Skagit Basin.
The WSC is pleased to have received this draft report, and the ability to share its content with our supporters. To reiterate, the article you have just read is meant to be a summary for our supporters, however we at the WSC have some significant concerns as to the direction of wild steelhead management on the Skagit. Rest assured that where appropriate the WSC is fighting for improved management, use of best available science, and the end goal of wild steelhead conservation for this precious species within the Skagit River Basin. To learn more about the WSC’s stance on Skagit wild steelhead or to get involve and make a difference, please feel free to contact us. There is much to be done, and we aren’t getting there with idle support.
Update: As of December 2011, WDFW has submitted this document to co-managers and this document is currently being reviewed and will be signed by all parties soon.