Last week ushered in a new era for the Olympic Peninsula.
In a unanimous vote, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to adopt new rules that would help boost declining wild steelhead populations.
Of those rules, perhaps the most notable is the elimination of harvest of wild steelhead and rainbow trout, bringing the OP in line with many other iconic fisheries who have already already adopted catch and release rules.
“North Coast Olympic rules are a subject near and dear to my heart," said Commissioner Miranda Wecker during the announcement. "The North Olympic rivers represent our last remaining stable stocks of wild steelhead. I, for one, do not want to be part of running these stocks into the ground.”
For conservation groups, the news was a signal that the tide is turning for wild steelhead.
“The Commissioners have done both wild steelhead and steelhead anglers a great service today,” said Rob Masonis, vice president for western conservation at Trout Unlimited. “They have considered the scientific evidence and the overwhelming support expressed by anglers and made common-sense changes to sportfishing rules. The new rules will help rebuild wild steelhead populations while providing -- and protecting -- a world-class fishery. There is more to be done, but this is a great start. We look forward to continuing to work with the Commission and WDFW to see the job through.”
Also included in those changes were gear restrictions during winter steelhead season and a trial on the upper Hoh that would experiment with restricting fishing from a boat. The rules were drafted by the North Coast Steelhead Advisory Group; 13 people from Seattle to Forks with knowledge of the fishery that included both gear and fly anglers as well as guides. Trout Unlimited participated on the advisory group.
“The bottom line is releasing wild steelhead and rainbow trout will get more fish onto the spawning grounds to help stem the long-term decline in the populations,” said John McMillan, science director for Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. “The selective gear rules -- including prohibiting barbed hooks and bait -- ensure that we are using the least harmful catch and release methods. Change is hard, but in this case, it’s a positive step and brings us in line with other iconic wild steelhead fisheries that have already taken the step of protecting and fortifying these wild fish populations.”
While many anglers supported the change - indeed thousands of letters poured into the Commission, the majority supporting the rule changes - there was some trepidation about the impact the changes might have on fishing opportunity. However, Chris Taylor, president of the Trout Unlimited Kitsap-Olympic Peninsulas chapter said what we need to focus on is keeping that opportunity sustainable by sustaining wild fish populations.
“The OP has brought together anglers of all types,” Taylor said. “It has demonstrated what we already know both anecdotally, and from the data -- anglers want to conserve wild steelhead and understand that healthy wild steelhead populations mean good fishing. We see this as an opportunity both for anglers and for the economies that support anglers. By reducing our impact, we are ensuring a more sustainable future of fishing opportunity, which translates directly into local dollars.”
The change in rules reflects the growing concern about dwindling wild steelhead populations across the West. Today, 70 percent of the major steelhead populations in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and California require federal protection.
Said author, Sean Gallagher in a recent piece for Wild Steelheaders United, “These proposed OP rules, if enacted, may seem only a small step, but it is a step in the right direction. It is the launching pad for wild fish recovery throughout the state of Washington. Support is growing. Our message is being heard. We have turned the corner. Now it is important to remain vigilant and continue forward.”