From cold mountain streams to the Pacific Ocean, the waters that shape the landscape of the Pacific Northwest also define the lifecycle of native steelhead, Washington’s official state fish. Fast and sleek, steelhead cover thousands of miles from the time they leave their natal streams for the open ocean, then return again – often more than once – to spawn.
Known for their explosive power and their preference for fast-flowing rivers, these fish have long held a special place in the lore Northwest anglers. Today, however, most Washington rivers are closed to retention of wild steelhead, and five of the state’s seven distinct steelhead populations are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
To reverse this trend, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has been working with a broad coalition of partners to address the major factors leading to the long-term decline wild steelhead – and salmon – in our state. For more than a decade, regional organizations, watershed groups, volunteer organizations, farmers and foresters have lined up with state, tribal and local governments to recover these essential resources.
Volunteers play a major role in this effort. Whether improving fish passage, planting streamside vegetation, or lending their expertise to fish recovery plans, thousands of Washingtonians have rolled up their sleeves to pitch in.
- For all Washingtonians, steelhead recovery starts at home. Use of water, electricity and pesticides can all have an impact on wild steelhead populations. See WDFW’s Salmon and Steelhead Recovery webpage or the tips offered by the Washington Recreation and Conservation Commission to determine how your choices affect wild fish.
- Many local governments and public utilities sponsor stream teams, which need volunteers for activities ranging from planting trees along stream banks to monitoring fish and wildlife movements. Many of these projects can be done close to home.
- These groups also coordinate projects designed to improve habitat for salmon and steelhead, but on a somewhat larger scale. There are 14 Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups (RFEGs) in Washington state, created by the Legislature to pursue projects in conjunction with local, state and federal agencies; Native American tribes; local businesses; community members; and landowners. Through these collaborative efforts, RFEGs help lead their communities in successful restoration, education and monitoring projects.
- No other single factor has contributed more to the decline of wild salmon and steelhead populations than the loss or degradation of freshwater spawning and rearing habitat. Local land-use decisions, often designed to accommodate a growing human population, have contributed greatly to this situation. By getting involved in the decision-making process, the public can help shape the future of wild fish populations in Washington state.
- Scientists now know that salmon and steelhead hatcheries and the fish they produce can affect the viability of wild runs. For that reason, federal approval is required to operate hatcheries in areas where salmon or steelhead are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The public can play an important role in this process by commenting on Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans submitted for review.
- Each year, the public has an opportunity to comment on new fishing regulations proposed for adoption by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, which sets policy for WDFW. While conservation is WDFW’s first priority in fishery management, others may see proposed rules as too strict or too lenient. WDFW’s website includes information on how to get involved.