Changes to the coastal steelhead season
Updated as of Dec. 30, 2020, based on public feedback we received during a Dec. 11 special Fish Committee meeting.
There are many reasons why some coastal steelhead runs are forecast well below levels in the not-so-distant past, with ocean conditions — spurred by climate change — a likely current culprit. We at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently announced some difficult changes to the coastal steelhead season to support steelhead conservation and preserve future angling opportunities.
These measures — which affect all sportfishing in coastal tributaries, go into effect Dec. 14, 2020 and last through April 30, 2021 — include:
- Fishing from a floating device is prohibited.
- Selective gear rules are in effect prohibiting the use of bait (including scents or scented materials), except only one single-point barbless hook is allowed.
- Anglers must release all wild rainbow trout. There’s no intention of having hatchery rainbow trout present in these rivers.
- Updated closure dates for listed rivers.
All existing hatchery steelhead limits for these rivers remain in effect as listed in the 2020–21 Sport Fishing Rules Pamphlet. Anglers must release all wild steelhead.
You can see the full list of affected rivers in the emergency rule.
We explored these measures with the public during a widely attended Nov. 24 virtual town hall, which is available to view below. You can also view meeting materials on our website.
While we recommend watching that meeting for background on these measures, we realized people still have some questions about the changes. Please see responses to some of the questions we’ve been hearing below.
What is the reason for these restrictions?
These restrictions come in response to concerns associated with the declining abundance of wild steelhead in coastal rivers. For example, in the Chehalis River, steelhead have come in well below escapement goals in three of the past four years. In February 2020, these poor returns prompted a closure of the Chehalis and its tributaries to state and tribal fisheries in an effort to conserve the remaining wild steelhead. Instead of outright closure, these restrictions offer a way to help meet conservation objectives while still allowing some limited fishing opportunity. Specifically, these regulations are expected to result in fewer wild steelhead being caught and a greater number returning safely to the spawning grounds.
As fishery managers, we know that to preserve any coastal steelhead angling opportunity and recover wild fish in the future, we have to catch fewer fish right now. These measures help to support that.
Why no fishing from a floating device?
Limiting fishing from a floating device has been used by fisheries managers in West Coast states to allow access to fisheries while increasing protections, especially of wild steelhead. This fishing rule will not restrict anglers using a boat for transportation but will require them to get out of their boat before they begin fishing.
Monitoring of fisheries in the past, represented below in a graph for the Hoh River for example, has shown that anglers are more likely to catch a wild steelhead from a boat than from shore. By restricting fishing from a floating device, we expect more wild steelhead will safely return to the spawning grounds. At the same time, we anticipate enough returning fish to allow shore anglers some opportunities to catch steelhead.
Why only allow single-point barbed hooks with no bait?
Studies have shown the use of bait and barbed hooks results in more fish caught and fewer fish surviving catch and release fisheries. By using this type of selective gear, anglers are helping to conserve wild fish for the future.
Why release rainbow trout?
Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species, but rainbow live in freshwater only, while steelhead are anadromous, or go to sea. Because of the presence of native coastal rainbow trout in some rivers and their importance in producing steelhead and adding resilience to steelhead populations, we’re restricting the retention of wild rainbow trout to help ensure no wild steelhead are kept inadvertently.
How did the department come to this decision?
This has been a difficult decision and not one we’ve come to lightly. We see public engagement as critical to our work and took considerable steps to engage the angling and conservation community. This rule change follows a WDFW virtual town hall discussion, attended live by more than 160 people and watched nearly 500 times after the initial event.
We’ve also considered the more than 300 public comments we received this fall weighing four management approaches for the coastal steelhead season. In addition to this feedback, we’ve also reached out to and met with guide organizations and advisory groups.
The Statewide Steelhead Management Plan also requires WDFW to meet objectives for steelhead abundance, productivity, diversity, and distribution, and WDFW analyzed suggestions from the public against those objectives.
We’ve further reviewed catch record card and creel data and analyzed catch reductions expected as a result of these regulations. It’s with this understanding and public feedback that as fishery managers we’re able to take these steps, outside of a full coastwide closure, to ensure that we’re meeting our management objectives while preserving some, though reduced, angling opportunities.
When were anglers and conservationists told about this evolving situation?
WDFW staff base our pre-season planning off the latest steelhead data. As steelhead complete their spawning lifecycle at the beginning of June, there’s a natural time constraint with this data. Given the low abundance, we recognize the importance of an open, transparent process and we worked to make this information available more than a month earlier than previous years. Co-managers and the state are exploring ways to provide even more advanced notice in the future.
In the time since fishery managers announced these measures, the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Fish Committee held a Dec. 11 special meeting, which included time for public comment, to discuss the coastal steelhead season. Meeting materials and a recording of that meeting are available on our website.
What options are available for anglers who have a physical disability that would prohibit them from fishing under these restrictions?
DFW makes every effort to provide angling opportunities for people of all abilities. As fishery managers, we also realize that to preserve any coastal steelhead angling opportunity and recover wild fish in the future, we must take drastic measures to catch fewer fish now. Due to the dire situation of these wild runs, we’ve had to make extremely difficult decisions that will help preserve fish for the future. To support conservation of these wild runs, fishing by boat won’t be possible this season.
We maintain information on other ADA-accessible water access sites and other boat-accessible locations on our website and would encourage those interested to make use of that information to plan alternate trips. Many of these locations are not expected to be impacted by the current low forecast numbers, though we understand that these opportunities may differ from your normal experience.
Disability access concerns around fishing from the shore may be addressed via a request for reasonable accommodation. More information about this process is available on our Requests for Title VI / ADA services web page.
How has the department considered angler safety in its decision to conserve steelhead by limiting access via boats while maintaining access from the bank?
Similar to Washington’s recreational angling community, our fishery managers and scientific researchers spend a significant amount of time (about every 7 to 10 days) on the banks of coastal rivers as part of our work surveying the spawning grounds. We’ve walked these rivers and we understand that bank access can be limited. We’ll be evaluating any challenges, including possible public safety concerns, that emerge with the new approach this season and continuing to fine tune measures for future seasons. WDFW also trusts that outdoor sportsmen will assess conditions, and their own physical limitations, in deciding to undertake fishing activities.
Would the department consider expanding fishing opportunities during the season if it started to see positive results?
Due to the lack of wild fish trapping and real-time estimates of sport catch on the Washington Coast, in-season (November through May) tools for monitoring the steelhead run are limited. Therefore, it is unlikely that we would have information available to expand recreational fishing opportunities in 2021.
What do these restrictions mean for the future coastal steelhead seasons?
We will continue to evaluate this year’s coastal steelhead season and returns as well as angler compliance with these regulation changes to inform future seasons. We will be monitoring to assess if additional regulation changes may be needed, including a potential closure to all coastal steelhead fishing.
What are tribal governments doing?
Tribal governments are also reducing their fishing times and harvest to support conservation objectives. These actions expand on actions the department and tribal comanagers took in 2019 to close steelhead fishing in mid-February on the Chehalis and Willapa rivers. Visit the following links for more information about management approaches the Hoh Tribe and Quileute Tribe are taking respectively.
What about keeping the Quillayute River system open, or other rivers where the run is expected to come in above forecast?
While it’s true that some coastal river systems are forecast to meet or exceed escapement targets, keeping certain rivers open while restricting or closing others creates uncertainty around fishing pressure. A consistent, coast-wide rule represented the best option to keep some fishing opportunity open everywhere. This rule provides protections for both rivers that are likely to meet management protections, like the Quillayute River, and those that are not.
How can I share additional feedback?
Feel free to contact us at email@example.com with your feedback. We know this is a challenging situation for many anglers and we thank you for taking the time to share your perspective with us.
Anglers should keep an eye on WDFW’s emergency rules webpage at https://fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules/ for the latest regulations, and consult the 2020–21 Sport Fishing Rules pamphlet for additional permanent regulations.