In Washington, anglers do not count steelhead by the number of fish caught per day, but by fish caught per season. This grueling reality has earned steelhead the moniker “the fish of a thousand casts.” But this epithet is not a tribute to steelhead. Rather it is a dubious distinction because steelhead are not particularly hard to catch. They are just very hard to find.
It has not always been this way. A century ago, Washington’s rivers were teeming with steelhead. In those days, steelhead were so abundant that it was common lore that you could walk across rivers on their backs. Back then, steelhead were not “the fish of a thousand casts.”
However, a century of gross mismanagement has decimated steelhead populations throughout Washington. In places like Puget Sound, famed steelhead populations have been reduced to 3% of their historic abundance, despite the fact that 66% of the habitat remains. In the course of a lifetime, steelhead went from being too abundant to count to being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The disappearance of steelhead is not a mystery. We are well aware of what has caused it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – the federal agency charged with protecting this imperiled fish – have identified the four culprits responsible for steelhead’s precipitous decline – hydropower, hatcheries, harvest, and habitat loss.
Despite this understanding and the agency’s legal obligation to protect steelhead populations, NOAA is currently undermining critical federal regulations to breathe new life into one of their four identified steelhead culprits – government-operated steelhead hatcheries. The last thing ESA-listed steelhead need is more of what has caused their decline. So why NOAA is actively working to undercut federal protections to expedite approval of steelhead hatcheries is beyond perplexing.
What makes this decision even more egregious is that this approach is a significant departure for NOAA. For the last 11 years, NOAA worked rigorously to develop a comprehensive environmental review of the impact of hatchery programs in Puget Sound. This review was scheduled to be released in the spring of 2015, but at the last minute NOAA pulled the plug on this 11-year review.
As a substitute for this comprehensive review that encompassed the entire Puget Sound, NOAA is now conducting a cursory environmental assessment for three hatcheries in three smaller watersheds. NOAA is trying to justify their dramatic reversal as merely a minor adjustment in strategy. However, it is a far cry from that. It is a fundamental shift with significant implications.
Left unchecked, what this approach does is establish a precedent that can be used to rubberstamp the activities of hatcheries, without the scrutiny of a thorough and proper assessment. With precedent in hand, NOAA could then replicate this approach throughout Washington, Oregon, and California.
All that stands in the way of NOAA setting this dangerous precedent are the voices of anglers demanding that NOAA do their due-diligence to properly assess the impacts of hatcheries. Time is running out as the comment period for this environmental assessment closes on May 4, so it is imperative that anglers speak up now.
As anglers, we have the ability to conserve and recover steelhead populations. We can transform the dubious moniker of “the fish of a thousand casts” into the much-improved “the fish of a hundred casts.” To do that, our voices need to be used in moments like this. But time is not on our side. We must act now.