by Carmen Macdonald
Trout Unlimited wants to save steelhead. They launched a new campaign called Be Steelhead on November 20th with simultaneous meetings held in five states: Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Alaska.
I don't need much of a reason to head out to the Lucky Lab, so my daughter and I attended the Oregon meeting in Portland.
TU is an interesting player to jump into the steelhead arena. They have over 110,000 members, mainly located in the East/Northeast region of the country. And most certainly, that membership owes its trout fishing to hatcheries, so I was really interested in a number of aspects of where the group was headed.
Some snapshots of the meeting include:
a. a lot of emotion
b. very little plan they were willing to discuss
c. some comments that left me inquisitive and needing to hear more.
I'm trying not to jump to conclusions- I tried to make it a point before I attended and still do to this day. I want to believe the organization is not another hell bent on dividing anglers and cutting hatcheries to achieve zero measurable results as seems to be the norm lately. But what I heard left little to go on.
Overall, every campaign needs some motivational slogans. I picked up on a couple it appeared TU is advancing within the conversation: steelhead are listed in 70% of their range and TU wants to restore and protect steelhead in the "great rivers of the west."
Those were in the press release and the meeting didn't add much more. I mentioned the emotion of the meeting and maybe that's the problem with steelhead. They've accumulated so much lore that perhaps it's difficult to simply look at them as a population.
Looking over my notes, I caught three pieces from the primary speaker. We have direct control over habitat, hatcheries and the "way in which we fish". Habitat and hatcheries are not new entries to this party. Habitat is a driving factor, in a large part driven by the growth of communities and construction of dams. In the case of hatcheries, it's a tired avenue. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Like the others I hope they don't aim to get programs cut and pat themselves on the back for accomplishing nothing 15 years later.
The "way in which we fish" was a new one to me. In fact, I heard it mentioned in different ways three different times. One was that "pressure is a large issue" and the other was "cannot manage them [fisheries] as we have." It leaves me wondering if gear restrictions, limited entry, or other similar components is the space where TU intends to leave its mark.
The documentation handed out hints further at this. With regard to angling opportunity, "While there may be a need to reduce fishing opportunity in the short-term on some rivers to give wild populations an opportunity to rebuild, we believe that short-term sacrifice will be more than justified by the long-term increase in fishing opportunity."
The odd thing about pressure is, it's a result of cutting hatcheries. Anglers have descended on those places where there's a reasonable expectation of catching fish. That used to include hundreds of streams, but no more. People didn't use to travel to the Olympic Peninsula en masse until the Puget Sound hatchery runs were flogged by the zealots. The Clackamas, Sandy, Molalla rivers held back much pressure from the coast before their programs were gutted.
I can't help but feel cautious that now that a bunch of other groups have gutted fisheries, TU may come in for the death blow. But in the absence of any real information at the meeting, they've allowed anyone to draw their own conclusions.
Back to a little more on the emotion. It rears its head in weird places. Not minutes after one speaker explains how TU will adhere to science, another speaker talks about how they were successful in thwarting wild steelhead harvest on the Umpqua River.
The Umpqua is perhaps the single most scientifically justifiable river in Oregon to have wild steelhead harvest. Thwarting harvest on the Umpqua isn't scientific, it's 100% emotion.
In another comment a speaker referenced the Sandy River. Specifically, it was how when he was younger the Sandy used to have winter steelhead runs better than 10,000, and now runs are just a bit more than a couple thousand.
In fact, going back to 1977, winter steelhead numbers, wild and hatchery combined never exceeded 4,078 to Marmot Dam, and in the years where the high was achieved, wild and hatchery were counted one and the same. What this angler remembered, I believe, is the large quantities of Big Creek hatchery fish that are no longer planted in the river.
Sorting through emotion seems especially difficult with steelhead. In reference to the campaign slogan of steelhead being threatened in 70% of their historical range, I asked if wild steelhead were in a better or worse position today than 40 years ago. The unequivocal answer was much worse. There's a lot of information within the Columbia Basin that would not bear that out. Puget Sound, probably true. California, don't know. But one scientist made a comment to me that wild steelhead have never been in a better position than today in Oregon and the Columbia.
What I fear many remember is quantity of hatchery fish that used to be available. Try as we may to believe those were wilds, I've been completely unable to find the data that bears it out. Steelhead are not as productive as salmon and never have been.
Changing gears, with regard to the "Great Rivers of the West" the facilitators of the meeting were wholly unwilling to divulge what rivers these were. Tough to comment on that. I expect they felt that putting names to them would cause immediate alarm well before the plan has time to gain momentum.
To TU's credit, they were adamant that hatcheries and angler opportunity were necessary. That could make a tough case for them with their traditional local base...but should play well to membership in the East. Orvis would have amounted to nothing without hatcheries back there. I lived in Pennsylvania as a child just long enough to experience a trout opener. Those ditches were filled with hatchery trout and anglers of the highest moral virtue loved them.
I was also impressed by some examples of direct stream restoration. In examples like those, everybody wins and that's certainly something everyone can support.
Overall, I didn't sign my name to the program, but want to see their next move. On one hand I worry that they're an organization in need of a campaign. I wonder if fresh off of the Pebble Mine effort, they simply need to feed the machine.
On the other hand, If this beast of an organization wants to take on large scale habitat issues and show meaningful results, I'd love to have them.
Looking over a bit of history-
-steelhead were made a game fish in the late 1970's
-fin-clipping of hatchery fish separated them from wild in the late 1980's
-ESA protection kicked in the 1990's
-hatchery programs were dramatically reduced in the 1990's
-hatchery programs have continued to be an action item throughout the 2000's
-Washington has its gene bank process rolling
-Oregon just completed its last HGMP (hatchery genetic management plan)
With all of these in place, where does TU feel others have dropped the ball? Where will they achieve meaningful results?
Dear TU, Please show me an example where "reduce fishing opportunity in the short term...to give wild populations an opportunity to rebuild" has produced measurable results. By what model do you hope to be successful? Do you have one, because I have a bunch that can show where reduced opportunity has not accomplished anything at all.
The lynchpin to the future of steelehad exists in a large, diverse and vibrant user group. If there's one concept I hope people can understand and internalize, that's the one. Without anglers, nobody cares about these fish.