Idaho Rivers United encourages the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to move quickly to reopen steelhead fishing while awaiting a final permit from NOAA.
Last month, Idaho Rivers United (IRU) joined a coalition of conservation groups in a 60-day notice of intent to sue IDFG and the State of Idaho over an illegal steelhead fishery. For 10 years, IDFG has conducted a steelhead fishery without a legal permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A permit is required because anglers searching for hatchery steelhead often catch wild fish, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
IRU has withdrawn from the coalition, and will not litigate this issue for two reasons:
First, NOAA has released a draft management plan that, when finalized, will legalize the steelhead fishery. IRU’s priority has shifted to evaluating the draft plan to ensure that Idaho’s wild steelhead receive needed protections during their migration and spawning seasons.
Second, we were surprised and disappointed that the Fish and Game Commission decided to close the steelhead season. Their decision hurt riverside towns, and many people we care about– people who are on a larger team to restore salmon and steelhead in Idaho. We regret that. We have many friends in those communities – anglers, fishing guides, citizens, and business owners, who have worked with us for many years on salmon and steelhead recovery. It is unfair to punish rural communities that depend on fishery-based economies. Let’s fix this, quickly.
Anglers cannot be blamed for poor steelhead returns. The problem steelhead face (and the problem anglers face) is the massive mortality caused by federal dams on the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers far downriver. We need everyone to focus on that, if we want steelhead in our rivers and strong fishery-based economies. Failing to focus on that will kill the fishery forever. A strong pro-steelhead team needs anglers of all types, Native Americans, businesses, scientists, conservation and fishing groups, and political leaders.
Wild steelhead are on an extinction path. Since 2015, returns have dropped precipitously, from over 39,000 to only 10,600 this year. The 2018 wild return is only 27% of the 10-year average, and the lowest since 1978. The forecast for 2019 is no better. The wild B-run cherished by anglers is a disaster, with fewer than 1,000 fish returning last year to populate hundreds of river miles of ideal habitat in the Clearwater and Salmon Rivers. Far too few.
Hatchery numbers have crashed too. In 2015, about 136,000 fish came back, but only 48,000 so far this year. We do not have enough steelhead, in Riggins or anywhere else in Idaho. That is the critical issue.
Leadership begins with the Governor’s office. Let us work together to create an Idaho voice, speaking out strongly to restore steelhead runs, wild and hatchery. Silence and inaction will doom them.
Kevin Lewis, Executive Director, Idaho Rivers United, (208) 343-7481
Tom Stuart, Board Member, Idaho Rivers United, (208) 343-3017