Your coastal steelhead questions — answered

This summer and fall, we’ve heard a lot from the broad community of people invested in coastal steelhead recovery as we envision fishery options for the 2021–2022 season. Since we kicked off our pre-season planning process in July 2021, people have taken the time to join WDFW fishery managers at virtual town hall meetings, submitted comments online, and tuned in to Commission meetings.

While we’re continuing to explore options for next season to help support steelhead recovery as well as angling opportunity, when available, in the meantime we wanted to share more information in response to some of the common questions we’re getting about coastal steelhead management.

How are coastal steelhead runs doing?

The outlook isn’t positive. Results from WDFW, tribal co-managers and the National Park Service stock assessments from the last 50 years suggests that coastal steelhead populations are in decline. The most recent returns in 2021 failed to meet escapement goals, which reflects the number of steelhead surviving to the spawning grounds. The 2021 total returns to the Washington Coast were the lowest on record. To make matters worse, steelhead survival is poor when ocean conditions are unfavorable. The salmon in oceans right now, which will make up our future runs, are experiencing unfavorable conditions.

The larger scientific community has documented decreasing survival rates among steelhead from California to British Columbia and highlighted recent poor conditions in freshwater and marine environments. In the coastal region we have documented similar trends, which we discussed in our first and second coastal steelhead virtual town halls this summer and fall.

What takeaways do we have from last season’s fishery approach?

Last season’s fishery restricted the use of bait and fishing from a boat, ultimately ending in an early closure to help increase the number of wild steelhead that return to the spawning grounds. Even with conservative fishing regulations to support coastal steelhead conservation, we saw that returns didn’t meet escapement goals in five of the seven coastal regions, further creating cause for concern.

Interestingly, we heard from many anglers (and our fish scales lab helped to confirm this) that we did see a high proportion of bigger, older, repeat-spawners in the population, which is good news for population recovery. However, these 6 and 7-year-old fish are the product of favorable ocean conditions in the past when they first entered the ocean. Next year, when this large proportion of older fish aren’t in the population due to less favorable ocean conditions, it’s likely that run sizes will be even lower.

If I love wild steelhead, should I keep fishing Washington’s coastal rivers?

When we set fishing season, we do so to ensure that law-abiding anglers can fish those waters without harm to the overall population. Regulations may be restrictive, but so long as you are abiding by all of them, you can have every expectation that your catch is consistent with the shared goal of maintaining wild steelhead populations.

What options is WDFW considering for this season’s fishery?

WDFW fishery managers are exploring four primary fishery options to the coastal steelhead season — all of which would have to ensure that this year’s harvest meets escapement goals.

  1. Coastwide closure: Coastal rivers closed to all fishing from Dec. 1 to April 15.
  2. Last year’s regulations: bait restriction, no fishing from a floating device, release rainbow trout, close March 31.
  3. Last year’s regulations with reduced days: bait restriction, no fishing from a floating device in select waters, release rainbow trout. Open 1 to 3 days a week.
  4. Status Quo with reduced days a week: Open to traditional regulations with significantly reduced days to achieve conservation objectives. Angling may only be open 1 to 3 days a week in select waters (lower river areas).

We’re also considering a suite of management tools options, including fishing from a floating device, barbed hooks, bait, bag limit adjustments, guide quotas, closure to combustion motors, etc.

WDFW fishery managers are weighing each option against key parameters outlined in the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, specifically, coastal steelhead abundance, productivity (or replacement, representing the number of fish produced by other fish), distribution, and diversity and are still willing to hear additional proposals from the angling community. Based on WDFW’s mandate, we make every effort to provide fishing opportunity once our conservation goals have been met.

For a detailed breakdown of the options, check out our most recent town hall (this portion of the discussion starts at about 54:45).

Why has WDFW allowed anglers to use drift boats and rafts in some rivers, such as the Sauk in north Puget Sound, that have Endangered Species Act listings, yet isn’t exploring this approach for the Wynoochee, Hoh, and others?

WDFW fishery managers don’t have the same robust monitoring infrastructure in place for coastal rivers that we see for rivers with Endangered Species Act-listed salmon, like the Sauk River. Without those stringent monitoring structures for coastal steelhead populations, there is greater uncertainty around catch estimates, particularly for drift boats and rafts. To implement a similar fishery approach for coastal rivers, WDFW would need significant new investments in fisheries monitoring, including in-the-field creel monitoring.

WDFW is requesting funding from the Legislature in 2022 to advance this freshwater monitoring.

What about implementing a permit or tag system, the same way for big game hunting, but for coastal steelhead fishing days on the water?

The limitations of this type of program would require larger discussions with the angling community and WDFW customers. Similarly, a significant investment in administration and enforcement would be needed to support a program of this magnitude.

Is WDFW exploring how fishery options could consider more opportunity on rivers with better escapement numbers within larger systems like the Quillayute River or others?

In recent years in the Quillayute River, the Sol Duc River has outperformed other streams in the area while the Calawah and Bogachiel rivers have declined more rapidly. In contrast, the Dickey River has remained stable. We will be discussing this in more detail during the Nov. 9 virtual town hall.

Is WDFW considering separating the Quillayute Basin rivers for both analysis and for developing potential fishery scenarios?

Yes. Tributary-specific goals and conservation concerns in individual, smaller systems will influence pre-season planning given the importance of protecting diversity and distribution of spawning populations.

If we’re concerned about coastal steelhead recovery, why doesn’t WDFW increase its escapement goals?

Escapement goals, the minimum number of fish that we want to see reach their spawning grounds, are biologically based goals that remain consistent year-to-year based on co-management agreement. Our escapement goals across the coast provide a high degree of certainty that we will meet this biological sustainability level.

See below for more information about how forecasted returns might trigger various fisheries management approaches based upon falling below, meeting, or exceeding escapement goals. At this time, preliminary analysis of proposals for 2022 seem to be aligning with a scenario unlikely to result in forecasts that exceed escapement goals for many rivers.

Can we increase hatchery production to provide more angling opportunity?

Currently, we target release levels consistent with the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan. The Steelhead Management Plan, approved in 2008, took into account how many fish can be released without significantly impacting wild population levels and provides a framework for rebuilding wild steelhead runs throughout the state.

We’ve included hatchery plant release targets on the coast below. Together, these plants are expected to result in approximately 10,000 hatchery adults returning to coastal rivers based on recent year survival ( less than1.5% returns per release).

Do hatchery and wild coastal steelhead overlap in their timing?

They overlap in both their run timing and spawn timing. This is one of the primary challenges in providing opportunity for harvesting hatchery fish while protecting wild fish and is a significant limiting factor to further increasing hatchery production.

Would the Department consider an approach that allowed anglers to fish until January to target hatchery fish and protect wild fish?

The Statewide Steelhead Management Plan directs WDFW to support the diversity of coastal steelhead. Fish that enter the river early spawn in unique locations from fish returning later and require equal protection to later returning fish. For instance, by Feb. 1, approximately 20% of adult steelhead have already entered the river in some places even if they don’t spawn until after March.

How is WDFW working with tribal co-managers to support coastal steelhead recovery?

We work closely with tribal co-managers along the coast to build fishery plans that meet our shared conservation goals. Each year, both state and tribal fishery managers perform robust pre-season and post-season reporting together to assess how well we’ve met these shared goals.

This year, tribal governments have taken similar steps to those of WDFW to help support coastal steelhead conservation. Their fishery managers have expedited post-season analysis alongside WDFW fishery managers to support earlier public engagement ahead of the coming season.

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

We continue to study coastal steelhead marine survival, including impacts from sea lion predation. Sea lions are federally managed and protected under the marine mammal protection act. Recent research suggests that when sea lions 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 sea lions would have to be unique to these coastal conditions.

What other research is WDFW doing to advance coastal steelhead recovery?

Last summer, WDFW fishery managers launched a research project using satellite tags — traditionally used for tracking wildlife like elk and wolves — to get a window into the life of coastal steelhead as they head back out to sea.

Supported through a partnership with NOAA Fisheries, the project aims to learn more about the decline of repeat spawning in coastal steelhead over past 30 years and better understand the migration and marine survival of young steelhead. Satellite pop up tags and acoustic tags are helping fish biologists to track fine scale movement of up to 100 adult steelhead in rivers, estuaries, and across the ocean.

We’re currently working through the data we’ve received from these satellite tags to inform future steelhead fisheries management. We anticipate we’ll have results to share in summer 2022.

To learn more about the project, check out our video below.

In addition, our research scientists and fish biologists are also helping to increase coastal steelhead monitoring efforts across the Olympic Peninsula. 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.

What is WDFW doing to support coastal steelhead habitat restoration?

WDFW continues to advance habitat restoration to benefit steelhead and other fish. Take, for example, the 3 Crabs Nearshore and Estuarine Restoration Project, which the North Olympic Salmon Coalition spearheaded. It spans WDFW’s Lower Dungeness Wildlife Area Unit along the shoreline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca just east of the Dungeness River. The project, which wrapped up in late 2018, restored ecological function to 40 acres of coastal marsh and more than one-half mile of river habitat. Additional, large-scale habitat projects in this watershed are planned in future years.

This is just one of many habitat restoration projects WDFW has been a part of. WDFW also 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 distributions, permitting regulations, and other issues to this group of local stakeholders. This type of collaborative effort across organizations is critical to successful habitat restoration.

When we look to the future for steelhead recovery, it’s clear there’s more work to be done. To learn more about WDFW’s habitat restoration projects underway, visit wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/habitat-recovery.

Is what we’re seeing for coastal steelhead along the coast true for other areas?

Yes. Recent research suggests that Nisqually River sees similarly poor productivity and survival. The Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office’s 2020 State of Salmon in Watersheds report also classifies Puget Sound steelhead as “in crisis.”

How is WDFW engaging the broad community of people invested in coastal steelhead recovery?

WDFW fishery managers kicked off pre-season planning for the 2021–2022 coastal steelhead fishery in early June with an update to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. We launched a coastal steelhead management web page, started taking public feedback online, and held our first coastal steelhead virtual town hall for the 2021–2022 season in July 2021. We then solicited for and formed an Ad-hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group, which is slated to begin meeting in early 2022. WDFW is hosting four virtual town halls this fall, which are allowing hundreds of people to better understand the coastal steelhead situation, and fishery alternatives. For more information about the pre-season planning process and prior and future meetings, please visit wdfw.wa.gov/coastal-steelhead.

What is the Ad-hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group?

This fall, WDFW appointed 12 members to a the newly formed Ad-Hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group. The group will play a key role in implementing the coastal steelhead proviso aimed at producing watershed specific fishery plans as required by the Washington Legislature in the 2021–23 budget. The ad-hoc group will meet virtually beginning in 2022. To view the member list and find more information, visit wdfw.wa.gov/about/advisory/csag.

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 a number of 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 reduce 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 license plate. For more than 40 years, the sale of personalized license plates has been the primary source of funding for the management of wildlife, including steelhead. It 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.

How can I stay engaged in the pre-season planning process?

Visit our coastal steelhead management web page to view upcoming virtual town halls, share a question or comment with fishery managers, or catch recordings of prior meetings. Our next virtual town hall is scheduled for 5 p.m. Nov 9, with an update to the Fish and Wildlife Commission slated for Nov. 19. Thank for your continued commitment to coastal steelhead recovery.

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

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