How Washington's Hoh River Steelhead Project could become the new Pacific Coast standard

Wild steelhead management is one of the more volatile issues among anglers, guides, conservation groups, and fisheries managers in the Pacific Northwest. But on Washington’s Hoh River, a hallowed 300-square-mile Olympic Peninsula watershed, a diverse group of stakeholders has built an uncommon allegiance around a pilot project to help the species.

The Conservation Angler’s (TCA) Pete Soverel and Trout Unlimited’s (TU) John McMillan sparked the effort after approaching the state about implementing a steelhead data collection and sonar program in collaboration with local guides and anglers. "We often overharvest wild steelhead based on a preseason run forecast," McMillan said. "One way to ensure that we do meet those predictions is by using sonar because it provides in-season real-time data to know whether or not healthy fish-abundance levels are being met and maintained."

Similar to the technology you’d find in a Hummingbird fish finder, sonar is used to count adult fish that swim past a specific location in the river. It sends sound waves into the water (think of a flashlight beam) and if they hit an object (think of a steelhead) the waves or echoes bounce back and are recorded. Sonar has been used for years to estimate sockeye salmon run sizes in Alaska. More recently it’s been used in places like California’s Smith River and British Columbia’s Fraser River. On the Hoh, however, it could represent a new paradigm.

Hoh River wild steelhead have missed escapement 8 of the past 13 years. Between the tribal commercial fishery annually harvesting (more than) their 50-percent allotment and 80 to 100 percent of the wild steelhead escapement being caught and released by anglers, this well-handled basin is in urgent need of improved data and management. How the data might influence management has yet to be determined, said Mara Zimmerman, WDFW’s lead research scientist for the project. "I can see all sorts of management uses for this information, but I would need to demonstrate its utility for managers to consider using it."

SonarInsetFor now the goal beyond simply counting fish is to improve the understanding of steelhead run timing, age structure, and repeat spawning rates. And it’s the anglers and guides who will provide the biological data, details such as scale samples and steelhead measurements. Gray Struznik, member of the Olympic Peninsula Guides Association (OPGA), is one of project volunteers. A Forks native, he’s seen first-hand the decline of the Hoh’s wild steelhead. "Our impact on these fish is a lot bigger than you might think," Struznik said. "Are these fish getting caught too many times? It’s something we all need to consider."

Struznik will also use what he gleans from the collected data to teach clients about the overall health of fisheries in the Olympic Peninsula area, believing educated sticks can become potential advocates. "This project is a team effort and makes everyone feel involved," he said. "I’ve had a lot of really cool, productive conversations in the boat with clients after collecting data."

Biologists, on the other hand, hope the data will shed light on steelhead life histories—when juveniles leave the river, how long they live in the ocean, when they re-enter the river as adults—and where and when those life histories take place in different parts of the watershed. "This could help us determine, over the long-term, whether certain life histories are being more or less productive and, over short-term, where steelhead are using habitat in the basin," McMillan said.

At this time WDFW does not use steelhead life histories to help shape its steelhead management models. So why does any of this matter? According to McMillan, "The data is critical because steelhead life histories are so diverse and need to be incorporated into management harvest and fishing regimes." This is an opportunity to move it in that direction. TU is also working to expand sonar to watersheds up and down the West Coast, with work already underway on Oregon’s John Day River.

In addition to TU and the OPGA, the collaboration on the Hoh now includes the Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC) and Olympic National Park (ONP). At times these stakeholders have disagreed over state steelhead management, but as Zimmerman noted, "We don’t always agree on what direction we need to go, but we have a common interest in wild steelhead."

The Hoh Tribe, the lone operators of the commercial fishery on the river, is aware of the project but has decided to opt out at this time.