Anglers Plan to “Occupy Skagit” to Restore the Catch-and-Release Season

Written by: Leland Miyawaki

Leland Skagit

Leland Miyawaki ties on a fly on Washington’s Skagit River.

photo courtesy Leland Miyawaki

[Editor’s Note: Anglers aren’t much known for civil disobedience, but April 6th will be a day of protest on Washington’s Skagit River. I asked Leland Miyawaki, former fishing manager of Orvis Bellevue, to explain what’s behind the movement.]

Civil Disobedience? A protest wade-in? Yes, we will step into the river to cast our yarn on Saturday, April 6, despite the fact that the river is closed to all fishing, and then proceed to Department hearings.

Why? It is not an easy answer. As some of you may know, the fishing regulations in Washington are not easy to understand. To most of us, they are a quagmire at best.

The Skagit River and her famous tributary, the Sauk, hold a dear spot in every steelheader’s heart because they are home to one of the greatest races of spring-returning, wild winter steelhead. History, tradition, and stories abound, as do all our contemporary advances in steelhead rods, lines, flies, techniques, and methods—think Skagit lines and Skagit casts.

Today, after years of spring closures, many of us have come to the conclusion that these two rivers have been closed in error and should be re-opened to catch-and-release fishing.

Phil asked me to write something on Operation Skagit, but rather than re-invent the wheel, I am presenting a piece originally written by Steve Fransen—a fellow steelhead fly fisher and retired biologist—to answer the many questions posed by fellow steelheaders on a Northwest online bulletin board.

—Leland Miyawaki

OS1

It’s pretty clear to those of us who fish that no fish ever benefited by being hooked and caught by an angler. Complete preservation, of fish and their habitat, is the perfect solution from a fish’s point of view. But Occupy Skagit (OS) is not about the fish’s point of view.

OS is about steelheaders who would rather fish than see their favorite river closed to fishing forevermore. Realistically, that is the present outlook simply because there is no plan to ever open the Skagit to fishing for wild steelhead again. OS is about developing such a plan, as soon as possible, so that anglers may fish the Skagit again in their lifetimes.

The concept that we must let the fish recover before we can fish for them again is a discussion based on false assumptions and unrealistic expectations. Wild Skagit steelhead are a population in no particular need of recovery. “What?” you say, “It’s consistently produced run sizes lower than the escapement goal.” But that’s not the whole story.

Wild Skagit steelhead are the most abundant in Puget Sound. Since 1978, the run size has averaged 7,822 fish, ranging from a low of around 2,600 to a high of 16,000. The spawning escapement has averaged 6,857 steelhead after harvest, both incidental and directed. As far as anyone can know for certain, this variation in population size is completely normal. There are good years, and there are bad years. Freshwater floods and droughts limit the out-migrating smolt population from year to year. The freshwater habitat has not really changed much in the last 30 years. Some parts have degraded further, and some parts have improved. On balance, it would be hard to quantify any significant change. And marine survival factors limit the percentage of smolts that survive to adulthood and return from the ocean each year. Given what we know about run sizes and escapement over a more than 30-year period, there is no logical reason to believe that wild Skagit steelhead runs will ever consistently average above the present spawning escapement floor value.

OS 2

The escapement goal is an artifact of uncertainty. The aggregate model that escapement goals were developed from in the 1980s calculated a Skagit spawning escapement goal far above 20,000. Since that seemed impractable and unrealistic, biologists rather arbitrarily picked 10,000 as an escapement guideline. In the 1980s, when marine survival was higher than it is now, that value appeared realistic. As more data were collected and analyzed, it was apparent that the Maximum Sustained Yield / Maximum Sustained Harvest escapement goal would be much lower, slightly less than 4,000. That seems low for such a large river basin, so the co-managers settled on 6,000 as a buffered escapement floor for some interim period. The take-home message in this paragraph is that no relationship exists between the Skagit wild steelhead spawning escapement goal and the actual productivity and capacity of the Skagit River basin to produce steelhead. Please re-read the last sentence and be certain that you understand it.

The last paragraph means that the Skagit wild steelhead spawning escapement goal is arbitrary, and possibly capricious. It’s meaning is primarily make-believe then. This leads me to the question of for what purpose are Skagit steelhead managed? Is it strictly species preservation, like a petting zoo, except you can’t actually pet the animals? Or is the purpose to conserve the population for the mutual long-term benefit of the species as well as human social and economic benefits. If the purpose is the former, then the present course is the one to stay on. If the latter, then a change is required.

skagit

OS is an evidence-based approach to steelhead management. Studies show that incidental mortality is significantly lower than the 10% value presently used by WDFW and NMFS. Skagit steelhead productivity shows that catch-and-release seasons from 1981 through 2009 had no measurable effect on population size. Even the combination of catch-and-release incidental mortality and the limited directed harvest indicate that fishing mortality has had no measurable effect on wild steelhead population abundance over the past 30 years.

OS does not propose catch-and-release fishing the Skagit run into extinction. The evidence strongly suggests that isn’t possible. OS is simply pointing out that, above some arbitrarily selected threshold run size, management regulations could permit catch-and-release steelhead seasons to be implemented with no measurable risk to future population abundance. And during that period, anglers could obtain the social benefits associated with catch-and-release fishing, and the local economy can benefit from added fishing activity. These benefits can be enjoyed while simultaneously conserving wild Skagit steelhead for as long as steelhead habitat is also conserved.

It’s just about that simple, but for the way the Puget Sound steelhead ESA listing aggregates Skagit steelhead. Just because change is hard does not mean change is not possible.

—Steve Fransen

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