Frequently Asked Questions: March 2022 Coastal Steelhead Closure

Photo by Chase Gunnell/ WDFW.

In early February, state fishery managers began reviewing preliminary data that suggested the coastal steelhead run size could be coming back significantly lower than expected, foreshadowing perhaps the lowest return ever recorded in some coastal rivers.

After briefing the Fish and Wildlife Commission as well as our Ad-hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group members on the data we’d been seeing, on Feb. 23 we announced a full closure to all sport fishing throughout the Washington Coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to meet management objectives and provide necessary protection for dwindling wild steelhead populations.

To view the full fishing rule change, which will go into effect on March 1, visit: https://fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules/erule.jsp?id=2805

We recognize the broad community committed to coastal steelhead recovery and wanted to take the time to summarize some of the common questions we’re hearing related to this closure. More information is available below.

Can you speak more to what is included in your preliminary data that was used as the basis for closing?

Based on historic return timing, most hatchery steelhead runs have ended and the wild steelhead returns are more than one-third of the way complete. At this point in the season, preliminary data reflects information from reviewing tribal co-managers’ catch, monitoring anglers catch, and examining trap counts, depending on the river.

WDFW fishery managers are committed to designing fisheries that support steelhead conservation, and part of how we do this is through data gathering, monitoring and sampling throughout various parts of the steelhead life cycle. At this point in the season, it’s too early to rely on counting redds, or nests, on the spawning grounds as an indicator for run size given that steelhead spawning has just begun and continues into June. Our fisheries biologists and research scientists count redds as part of standardized stock assessment work in the late winter and spring.

Stock assessment also includes using coded wire tags to track out-migrating hatchery steelhead, recording population numbers of both hatchery and wild populations at smolt traps, and collecting scales, tissue samples, and other biological data from wild populations to get a better glimpse at their life story.

During the ocean phase, when mortality is extremely high, we’re involved in collaborative research to better understand where fish are going as they migrate rapidly offshore. When they return to freshwater and enter fisheries, WDFW fishery managers monitor run timing, collaborate with tribal co-managers on data collection, use catch record cards, and in-field discussions with anglers, or creel interviews, to get a sense of how the run is doing in-season. We also conduct stock assessments and river surveys, often on foot, by boat and even from the air, to count nests, or redds, which can indicate important information about steelhead population numbers. Steelhead spawning ground surveys are conducted every 7 to 14 days beginning in February continuing into June.

Our hatchery programs also provide a suite of monitoring tools as steelhead return to hatcheries along the coast. You can learn more about various aspects of coastal steelhead fisheries management and monitoring in minutes 23 to 28 during our July 2021 coastal steelhead virtual town hall.

What steps are tribal governments taking to support steelhead conservation?

Coastal tribes curtailed fisheries in 2022 to protect wild steelhead and have now taken further actions to close fisheries targeting steelhead after Feb. 28.

Can you speak more broadly to what WDFW is doing to support coastal steelhead conservation and future angling opportunities, when possible?

Over the past decade WDFW and tribal co-managers have been unsuccessful meeting pre-season management objectives on many coastal rivers. In the face of declining abundance of wild steelhead, the importance of meeting escapement goals and pre-season plans is more important now than ever. Anglers should expect increased monitoring of runs in-season given that we are operating under such a small margin of error and focused on rebuilding runs to historic levels.

This small margin of error provides a necessary conservation buffer to better support any uncertainty in the run size between what was forecasted and actual returns. Specifically, for the 2021–2022 coastal steelhead season, pre-season management plans provided margins of error for wild steelhead at less than 100 fish for Willapa Bay, 300 fish for the Hoh River, and 700 for the Quillayute River — so tight that there was little to no room for the run to come in lower than expected. This challenge was described pre-season but comanagers moved forward with fisheries plans with the understanding that in-seasons discussions may result in changes in-season.

Two of the major limitations to the management of coastal steelhead is a current lack of data regarding the condition and survival of returning adult steelhead and uncertainty around the impact of sport fisheries. We are working to increase coastal steelhead monitoring efforts across the Olympic Peninsula and the south coast. Starting this year, we’ve expanded the biological data we’re recording as part of our typical river surveys and creel monitoring encounters, including fish size, genetics, girth, age, and condition, to further inform future fisheries management. The Department is also updating coastal steelhead fisheries long-term management strategies to protect wild and hatchery origin steelhead. To help support future, more robust in-season freshwater monitoring for coastal steelhead and other fisheries, WDFW is requesting $2.6 million in new state funding this legislative session. To learn more about the budget request, visit WDFW’s budget information web page.

In addition, WDFW research scientists and fish biologists are leading a number of research efforts to better understand coastal steelhead and support their recovery. Learn more about ongoing research in our YouTube video and look for updates soon on emerging research to understand when and where spawning occurs and reported decreases in fecundity, or the rate of reproduction for an individual.

WDFW also continues to advance habitat restoration to benefit steelhead and other fish and engages with the local lead entity groups that are prioritizing and implementing habitat restoration work on the Washington Coast. WDFW fish and habitat biologists bring needed expertise on fish distribution, permitting regulations, and other issues to this group of local stakeholders.

What about seals and sea lions? What is WDFW doing to mitigate seal and sea lion predation impacts on coastal steelhead recovery?

We continue to study coastal steelhead marine survival, including impacts from seal and sea lion (pinniped) predation. Sea lions are federally managed and protected under the marine mammal protection act. Recent research suggests that when pinnipeds feed on steelhead, they’re primarily targeting young steelhead.

In 2020, after more than a decade of research and active management, WDFW and state and tribal partners received federal approval for an expanded effort to remove predatory California and Steller sea lions on a portion of the lower Columbia River. Managers began these expanded removals in fall of that year and received additional pinniped management funding from the Washington Legislature in 2021. Sea lions in the Columbia River, however, are seeking prey in a fundamentally different environment than those in coastal waters, where fewer human-made structures provide unnatural access to salmon. Any approach to coastal pinniped predation would have to be unique to these coastal conditions. We have increased pinniped population counts and using funding appropriated by the legislature in 2021. Further, we have contracted with the Washington State Academy of Sciences to conduct a comprehensive review of predation impacts (with an emphasis on salmon in Puget Sound and the outer coast).

How does WDFW coordinate with local fishing guides to support fisheries monitoring?

Guides and charter boat operators are integral parts of our fishing communities. They introduce people to fishing, advocate for public access to our natural resources and bring millions of dollars in tourism into Washington’s small local communities. WDFW recognizes this value the industry brings and has a long history of partnering with the guide community to support robust fisheries management.

In 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Commission passed a rule initiating logbook reporting by guides to collect additional data on species encountered, locations fished and the number of anglers fishing with guides. This tool will be integral to improve communication between the agency and the fishers that spend the most time on the water. The agency developed three reporting tools to help guides comply with the new rule; a paper logbook, a web reporting application and a mobile reporting application.

The logbook is one of the most direct tools that guides have at their fingertips to help support fisheries monitoring and inform fisheries management. As compliance with the mandated logbook goes up, so does the value of this tool for helping to provide critical in-season monitoring. Learn more about the guide logbook on our website.

WDFW fishery managers currently partner with fishing guides for a number of projects, including coho broodstocking in Humptulips River, Chinook at Satsop Springs, and cutthroat trout genetics and scale collection in the marine waters of Hood Canal, with the desire to build in similar tools for steelhead.

How can I get involved in the pre-season planning for next year’s season?

Similar to last year’s pre-season planning process, we’re planning a suite of virtual town halls to gather public feedback ahead of the 2022–2023 season. More details will be posted as they become available on our Coastal Steelhead Management web page.

How can I participate in WDFW’s planning process for coastal steelhead long-term management?

This February, WDFW fishery managers also kicked off a long-term planning process for coastal steelhead management with the first meeting of the Ad-hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group. The group will be helping to inform the development of a long-term management plan to protect native and hatchery-produced steelhead for each river system of Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and coastal Olympic Peninsula, as required by the Washington Legislature in the 2021–23 budget.

The group will meet virtually with meetings planned for March, April, June, August, and September. Meetings will include time for public comment and our virtual meetings will be recorded so members of the public can watch them after the fact. More information is available on our Ad-Hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group web page.

How can I share feedback with WDFW fishery managers?

You can share a comment or pass along a question to WDFW fishery managers on our Coastal Steelhead Management web page. Thanks in advance for taking the time to share your thoughts on coastal steelhead recovery with us.

What can I do to make a difference for coastal steelhead?

If you’re reading this far, chances are you’re already deeply invested in coastal steelhead recovery. When we consider the limiting factors on coastal steelhead recovery, which include a warming ocean and lack of freshwater habitat, there are several ways to initiate positive change for this species:

  • Contact your local WDFW fish biologist for regional insight on the best things you can do to make a difference for coastal steelhead.
  • Reduce your time in the car and instead opt to walk, bike, carpool, or take public transportation to change your carbon footprint and curb ocean warming.
  • Volunteer to restore steelhead habitat. Contact your local regional fisheries enhancement group or conservation district to learn more about opportunities, such as tree plantings or work parties, to give back to streams and rivers in your community.
  • Consider a personalized Washington steelhead license plate. For more than 40 years, the sale of personalized license plates has been the main source of funding for the management of non-game wildlife. The personalized Washington steelhead license plate even helped to fund the research project we highlighted above. You can buy personalized plates through the Washington Department of Licensing — initial fees and renewal fee varies by location and type of vehicle. A portion of sales — $2 from each plate purchased — also supports the care and rehabilitation of sick, injured or orphaned wildlife.
  • Own shoreline habitat? Make a difference right at home! WDFW biologists and programs help private landowners pursue restoration projects along waterways and shorelines that provide important habitat for fish and healthy aquatic ecosystems. Visit our website for more information.

For more information about coastal steelhead management, visit our website.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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