Washington Issues Coastal Steelhead Fishing Restrictions To Protect Declining Wild Steelhead; Could Mean 50 Percent Less Catch

Fishery managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife this week announced restrictions to sportfishing in rivers throughout the Washington coast to protect wild steelhead populations.

The restrictions will begin Dec. 14 and are expected to last through April 30 and affect all sportfishing in coastal tributaries. Among the changes:

•Fishing from a floating device is prohibited.

•Selective gear rules are in effect prohibiting the use of bait (including scents or scented materials), except only one single-point barbless hook is allowed.

•Anglers must release all rainbow trout.

See all affected rivers and any exceptions in the full rule change at https://fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules/erule.jsp?id=2611

The rule change follows a WDFW virtual town hall discussion, attended by more than 160 members of the state’s angling community and conservation organizations, as well as more than 300 public comments the department received this fall weighing four management approaches to support long-term coastal steelhead conservation.

The Statewide Steelhead Management Plan requires WDFW to meet objectives for steelhead abundance, productivity, diversity, and distribution, and WDFW analyzed suggestions from the public against those objectives.

“As fishery managers, we’re concerned with the declining abundance of wild steelhead in coastal rivers and recognize that significant changes to the status quo are needed in order to support healthy wild steelhead populations and long-term fishing opportunities,” said James Losee, Fish Program manager for WDFW’s Coastal Region. “For that reason, this measure prioritizes wild fish by meeting the objectives of the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan while still offering some limited fishing opportunity.”

Several coastal wild steelhead runs are expected to return below escapement goals and fail to meet conservation objectives, as they have the past four seasons. For example, in the Chehalis River, returns are expected to come in 2,000 fish below the escapement goal of 8,600 spawners.

“Based on public feedback and analysis of catch reductions expected as a result of these regulations, this rule change provides the greatest short-term certainty of meeting our management objectives, outside of a full coastwide steelhead closure, by limiting encounters while spreading risk and creating opportunity for fishing across the entire run,” Losee said. “Echoing the support we’ve heard from much of the angling and conservation community, we feel confident that this plan will break recent years’ pattern of not meeting escapement goals, while still providing opportunity for fishing.”

Specifically, WDFW expects that these measures will result in a more than 50 percent reduction in the number of steelhead caught across coastal waters.

Combined with conservation actions from tribal co-managers, including reduced fishing time for tribal fisheries, WDFW believes that this rule change will result in meeting management objectives. These actions expand on actions the department and tribal co-managers took in 2019 to close steelhead fishing in mid-February on the Chehalis and Willapa rivers.

Losee noted that fishery managers will continue to monitor returns and assess if additional regulation changes may be needed, including potential closure of coastal steelhead fishing. State fishery managers will continue to coordinate with tribal co-managers.

“These regulation changes allow us to provide some opportunity while giving us the confidence that we will meet our conservation obligations,” said WDFW Fish Program Director Kelly Cunningham. “We continue to evaluate long-term approaches for steelhead management, prioritizing wild stocks, monitoring of fisheries, and innovative hatchery programs.”

Anglers should keep an eye on WDFW’s emergency rules webpage at https://fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules/ for the latest regulations, and consult the 2020-21 Sport Fishing Rules pamphlet for additional permanent regulations.

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