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.
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