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Skagit Escapement?

2669 Views 7 Replies 5 Participants Last post by  Robert
I heard a rumor on another board that Bob Gibbon's and the WDFW announced this weeekend that they were droping the Skagit\Sauk escapement from 10,000 fish to 6,000 fish because it would be easier to attain. Is this true? Has anyone heard anything on this yet? If there is no science behind it why would they do this? Makes no sense. You can't tell me that the Skagit\Sauk system can only support 6,000 fish.


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I heard a rumor the other day that there is still 50/50 chance they won't open the Skagit for the spring c&r season. Nothhing about lowering the escaspment.
I read the same on a few other boards, from reliable people who were at the Symposium.

This is INSANE! I gotta wonder what is the rationale behind reducing the escapement? The message is, it doesn't matter if 40% less return, we just want to get at 'em anyway.

Who grants them the authority to make such unsolicited decisions, and how do such acts of lunacy get corrected??
I sent a letter off to Bill McMillan whom I have enjoyed greatly exchanging emails with this past year, asking him about the escapement and he sent me this good response back. It is long but well worth the read. He want to get this info out to the people that care.

JJ ...

It's not that WDFW is going to reduce the Skagit wild steelhead escapement goal, they already have ... very quietly I might add.

I had heard this initially through the WA Trout lawyer about the time you and I went fishing together last year. At that time it was evidently a developing plan that at least one WDFW source was blaming on pressure from the Tribes, but that nevertheless, WDFW was probably going to go along with it. I then heard nothing more of it until at the Steelhead Symposium at the Seattle Center on the 22nd. And even there it was only briefly mentioned by Bob Leland (steelhead manager for WDFW) and no details were given in his brief mention which seemed to slip by most everyone.

However, my neighbor, Jack de Yonge and I caught it, primarily because we were both listening for it. Jack was the past editor of the P-I and the advisor to Gov. Lowry on natural resources. He was the one most instrumental in getting coverage on the dewatered Skagit redds last Thanksgiving. We conferred with each other to make sure we had heard what was said and waited for some opportunity to bring it up in the public's turn for questions (very limited time with lots of folks having questions, both written and verbal).

We were not able to get a question in during Leland's panel. However, in a later panel, Bob Gibbons of WDFW, gave a dismal presentation on Washington's steelhead escapement goals. Projected on the screen was a list of Washington streams that included the Skagit with no mention that for many years it had a goal of 10,000 steelhead (rarely if ever met by the way). Instead, without any preface, there it was magically transformed with not a word about it as 6,000 steelhead. Not a hint to the audience from Gibbons.

Bob Leland had previously mentioned the unanticipated "crash" of steelhead returning to Puget Sound streams the past two winters. And he specifically used the word CRASH to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. And Bob Gibbons, in a later panel, emphasized that WDFW did not believe that reducing escapement goals was a good way to address the problem of streams not meeting their escapement goals. Yet not a word was said explaining how the Department had come up with a 40% reduction in the escapement goal as an apparent means of addressing the "crash" of escapement on the Skagit the past two years.

Escapement last year was estimated at about 4,300 fish if I remember right, which is within 72% of meeting the 6,000 fish escapement goal, but only 43% of meeting the 10,000 fish escapement goal. And given what they did with the escapement target, I hesitate to trust their actual escapement figures as well. As I remember, the escapement estimate for the previous winter was about 3,000 steelhead which was not even mentioned, and that the previous year (and all previous years) it was legal to KILL wild steelhead on the Skagit system from December through February. Last year it was finally closed to early season wild steelhead kill, but C&R was allowed while the C&R season was entirely eliminated on the later component of the wild run. This is despite the fact the later run is much stronger than the weaker early component of the run. Of course, their argument is hatchery fish are present in the early part of the run, and in order to reduce the liklihood they will spawn in the wild, they need to concentrate a harvest fishery on them.

This is perpetually the problem with hatchery steelhead programs, and it is exactly why hatchery salmon and steelhead programs have been targeted by scientists as being a significant problem that wild salmon and steelhead populations face: hatchery fish escaping into the wild perpetually limit wild spawning and rearing success; and the effort to eliminate that with high harvest levels of hatchery fish (and all too often wild fish with
them) also threatens wild fish by reducing their spawning escapement. So hatchery fish are a double whammy! If they escape to spawn they deplete wild fish. And if you put enough harvest pressure on them to try and eliminate their escapement, you also end up depleting the wild population.

There are essentially three possible means of addressing the problem: 1) reduce hatchery plants so that it is known that the escaping numbers into the wild can't overwhelm the wild popoulation (in Oregon that target is no more than 10% hatchery escapement into the wild which they probably do not meet very often partly because anglers C&R too many hatchery fish); 2) put weirs across the lower sections of rivers and major spawning tribs with traps that would eliminate hatchery fish from most wild spawning escapement destinations (very expensive and labor intensive, although it is how some streams have been managed in Alaska and B.C. for both salmon and steelhead to monitor their escapement to some destinations; for Atlantic salmon in at least one of the eastern Canada provinces, Newfoundland I believe, again to monitor wild salmon escapement; and for the past decade on a number of small Oregon coastal creeks to document wild and hatchery steelhead spawning interactions); or 3) the least expensive and most certain, eliminate hatchery programs as Montana did decades ago with resident trout on Montana streams (and look what it did for wild trout populations there and the recreational use, although in Washington it's a given that Tribes could harvest a component of the wild increase that would occur with elimination of hatchery fish).

Anyway, toward the end of the Symposium I finally had an opportunity to pointedly address the Skagit escapement issue:

"It does not seem quite fair that WDFW has not prefaced the figures given by Bob Gibbons regarding wild steelhead escapement for the Skagit River with an explanation that until just a few months ago wild steelhead escapement for the Skagit had been 10,000 steelhead for many years but that it has now been adjusted as an apparent response to the two year crash in the wild steelhead population to 6,000 steelhead. I would like to ask the representatives present from Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho if this would be their response to a sudden crash in wild steelhead on one of their major rivers -- simply reduce the escapement goal?"

Unfortunately, the representatives I had asked the question of were not allowed to respond. Bob Gibbons and Bob Leland immediately jumped in explaining their limitations due to the Tribes. No real specifics, but a lot of time consuming garble that eliminated the opportunity for those to answer the question had been asked of.

A secondary component of what happened last year on the Skagit was an interesting invention by WDFW that is stated as a "guideline" (from where that guideline came from was not clear) which limits wild steelhead management decisions regarding C&R fisheries: "If wild steelhead escapement is estimated to be 80% or less of meeting its escapement goal, then there will be no C&R seasons targeting wild steelhead."

Interestingly, the very reason that C&R regulations were developed was to protect wild steelhead populations that were not meeting escapement goals while allowing some sort of angling recreation. While there is undoubtedly a figure below which wild steelhead are not meeting escapement that ALL angling activity should be curtailed, 80% is not that cut off point, particularly for steelhead in cold winter waters. I would begin to question C&R in intensive fisheries at around the 50%-40% range for summer steelhead escapement and even lower for winter fish -- maybe between 35%-25% (this would have made a C&R season debatable on the Skagit in the winter of 99/00 but would have left it clearly open to C&R in 00/01 using the appropriate 10,000 escapement goal figure). For most years since the early 1980s, the only river system in the State meeting or exceeding wild steelhead escapement goals was the Quillayute system. Probably most steelhead rivers in the State have chronically been no more than at 80% of meeting escapement goals for years! Certainly in S.W. Washington, most rivers have been below 50% for a long, long time until the past year or two.

So, I asked a second question:

"Where did the WDFW guideline come from that any river not meeting at least 80% of its wild steelhead escapement goal would not meet the criteria for a steelhead catch and release fishery? I have found that guideline nowhere in the Wild Salmonid Policy."

Again, Bob Gibbons and Bob Leland gave a garbled response. They finally indicated that it came from within the Department in the development of their Wild Steelhead Management Plan. They quietly added, it may need some review. But I doubt it will without concerted public pressure.

So, there's the scoop JJ. You might want to disperse this info among those
you know who are interested in wild steelhead. My best, Bill
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BRAVO! Thank you Jeff, that was a great read.

It's great to find that I share so many views with Bill McMillan, as I think we all do. The whole notion of timed return management is a joke aimed at trying to time share the river for politically motivated demands of commercial lobbyists and tribal exploits. I too have always felt that weirs are the right approach for selectively managing and assessing returning salmonids and it would help in the elimination of rogue atlantics BTW. I believe that selective C&R ( very selective ;) ) is sustainable with low impact on fish populations and that lowering the escapement to qualify KILL fisheries is deplorable - we must do something about it.

It's so reassuring to hear someone like Bill McMillan voicing these sentiments so that someone as respected as he might ask the real tough questions to the policy makers (and breakers).

Unfortunately it seems that there's a long road ahead to make progress toward the right policies, and the rationale is still clouded by political issues - not what's best for the fish.

With Bill's permission, I would like to transfer this to an article format so it doesn't get buried in a bulletin board over time.
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I will ask him if he minds this being put out on your web site.

It just goes and shows us that the WDFW uses the numbers that they want to and when they want to!

I know that we have all had our disagreements with Kreamer but I have always put him above this poor, politically movitated rhetoric. How can I know?? I would really like to talk with directly about this issue to see just what he has to say.
Thought I would share some comments from Jack DeYounge I recieved from the Steelhead Symposium.

Bob Leland and Bob Gibbons of WDFW, as part of their dismal presentations in comparison to the scientific presentations from B.C. and Oregon, mentioned without particular note that WDFW has cut from 10,000 to 6,000 the management goal for getting wild steelhead back to the Skagit.

Upon questioning, Gibbons basically blamed the tribes for the cutback. I have not heard back from the Skagit System Co-Op, the tribal fisheries management arm of the Skagit Tribes, whether Gibbons' statement is true.

In any case, the cutback of 40 percent occurred without public discussion or input or discussion.

Such a cutback has mighty implications:

1. It makes a meager return year like this year (estimated return: 4,300) look much better in the statistics. It makes 4,300 look like a 72 percent return (at 6,000) rather than a 43 percent return (at 10,000). If WDFW continues to drop the return goal, it can achieve on paper a 100 percent return, to prove its management on the Skagit is excellent.

2. Dropping the goal obscures the obviously steep downward curve of wild steelhead returns on the Skagit: The curve of returns now flattens.

3. Since WDFW continues to use a simple and in my view fraudulent Maximum Sustained Harvest formula, in a good year of wild steelhead returns the 6,000 aim figure would place quite a bunch more of adults into the "harvest" area. MSH basically says this: We establish a return goal. We plot estimate returns. We try to figure the minimum # of adults needed to produce what is now 6,000 fish. The rest are "surplus." "Surplus," of course, is a political tern, not a
biological turn. It means how many fish we guess we can kill and thus satisfy the kill lust of our license holders. Underlying this concept is the notion that the state basically runs a big (and expensive) fish farm of wild and hatchery fish to put meat on somebody's table.

4. I believe there is no biological justification for the change
from 10,000 to 6,000. I admit that I don't know if there is any
biological justification for the 10,000. In my experience with WDFW, the department manages fish as a political product and rarely can produce science to justify its management goals. Note that the 6,000 figure is for the entire Skagit system. It in no way deals with how many fish should return to the mainstem Skagit, how many to the mainstem Sauk, how many to Skagit tributaries other than the Sauk, how many to the Sauk's tributaries. Thus any management for kill can wipe out a tiny tributary run without anyone noticing or giving an official hoot.

5. The change in escapement goals illustrates for me that fish
management is a contradiction in terms, an Irish bull. We don't
management fish. We try to manage anglers.
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