NOAA solicits public comment for steelhead fishery proposal

Home to a revered population of ESA-listed wild winter steelhead, Washington’s Skagit River and its main tributary, the Sauk, have been closed to spring catch-and-release fishing since 2011. That could all change in early 2018, however, as NOAA is considering granting a harvest permit to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and its tribal co-managers.

The Skagit hit a nadir in 2009 when only 2,600 wild steelhead returned to the basin. During its closure, the population has rebounded considerably, with an average of 8,800 spawning steelhead from 2013-15. That number is higher than previous years when the Skagit sported its traditional catch-and-release steelhead season. Catalyzed by groups such as Occupy Skagit and Wild Steelheaders United, the WDFW and tribes submitted their proposal to re-open the fishery in November 2016. 

“We love fishing the Skagit, and we want to see it open again,” says Rich Simms, president of the Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC). “But it's vitally important that the regulations are tightly tailored to ensure this fishery remains sustainable and the continued recovery of wild steelhead in the Skagit Basin is not jeopardized.”

WDFW is expecting to receive a permit from NOAA soon. Meantime, it’s working on the requisites, which includes coming up with $391,000 to support the fishery through its first year. Funding will have to come from within the department, where it would be pulled from other programs. Sport fishing regulations are expected to be restrictive, requiring the use of single, barbless hooks and, potentially, banning fishing from boats. Catch and release will also be mandatory, as wild steelhead retention is banned statewide. WDFW regulations would only apply to sport fishing. Under the harvest permit, tribal co-managers would have rights to net steelhead.

Anglers across Planet Steelhead may be frothing to get on the water, but nothing yet is official.

“WDFW's Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group, on which we [WSC] are represented, is also still discussing what this fishery would actually look like if approved by the federal agencies,” Simms adds, “and we believe those constructive discussions should conclude before any wild steelhead-directed fishery is reopened on the Skagit or Sauk.”

Soliciting public comments is one of the first steps NOAA must take before giving the thumbs up or down to a new beginning on the Skagit. Anglers have until January 8, 2018 to voice their opinions.

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