- Fish/Shellfish Research and Management
- Fish/Shellfish Research and Management -- Management and Conservation
Published: December 1, 2022
Author(s): Toby Harbison, James Losee, Jan Ohlberger, and Anja Huff
Given the cultural, economic, and ecological significance of steelhead, Oncorhynchus mykiss, population declines of the species along Washington’s Pacific coast and associated declines in angling opportunities have highlighted the need to design and fund recreational fisheries management strategies that balance angling opportunities with conservation objectives. In pursuit of that goal, and to fulfill the Legislature’s 2021-2023 operating budget proviso, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has developed the Coastal Steelhead Proviso Implementation Plan (CSPIP), which lays an adaptive groundwork for steelhead fishery management in the river systems of Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the coastal Olympic Peninsula. WDFW designed the plan to provide sustainable fishing opportunities, protect coastal steelhead, and incorporate stakeholder input and outreach. Although the state engaged tribal co-managers and Olympic National Park (ONP) in the development of these plans, they only apply to state steelhead management on the Washington coast.
The science based CSPIP incorporates ecological knowledge of the target species while considering the history of harvest and management, state and federal mandates, and socio-economic implications that underpin management decisions. The plan lays out an overarching Proviso Implementation Strategy that addresses five key elements of management: monitoring and evaluation, fisheries regulations, hatchery operations, habitat, and human dimensions. Due to the highly interconnected nature of those elements, the strategy includes an Adaptive Management Framework (Table 1) that assigns appropriate management actions based on wild steelhead abundance and the level of monitoring that is available to inform management. WDFW applies the Proviso Implementation Strategy to individual systems on the Washington coast, acknowledging each river’s unique characteristics in terms of habitat, fishing activities, monitoring, tribal co-manager relationships, and hatchery programs. The CSPIP also includes public communication guidelines, an implementation timeline with benchmarks, budget projections, critical research needs, and a vision for next steps.
To this point, a major limiting factor in the development of coastal steelhead management has been a lack of available resources necessary to collect crucial data and inform management decisions. Data gaps cause uncertainty around fishery impacts, and in some cases lead to fishery closures when managers lack sufficient information to create angling opportunities with a high degree of confidence that those fisheries will remain within sustainable impact limits. Given sufficient funding, increased monitoring and research would address that problem, not only by increasing the likelihood that sustainable fisheries can remain open through high-precision sport fishery monitoring, but also by collecting the data required to set long-term conservation objectives. Thus, the increased standard of monitoring and evaluation and critical research associated with the CSPIP creates a win-win situation for multiple stakeholder groups and steelhead-related interests. Specific research topics that need to be addressed include summer steelhead, estimates of non-harvest mortality, the application of SONAR technology for steelhead monitoring, marine survival, juvenile monitoring, habitat restoration impacts on steelhead resilience, and human dimensions of steelhead management. Increased monitoring and research would aid in the development of new management tools such as predator control measures, wild stock gene banks, and innovative hatchery programs (e.g. research, conservation, and wild broodstock programs).
Through this plan, the Department aims to increase the two-way flow of information between steelhead stakeholders and resource managers by providing accurate and consistent information about coastal steelhead, strengthening community partnerships, and increasing opportunities for the public to engage in the fisheries management process. Those objectives would be achieved through media engagement, online resources, a public comment form, and public meetings, among other methods. WDFW recognizes the broad community of people invested in steelhead fisheries and conservation and values their feedback as the Department navigates a solution-oriented path forward.
Based on guidance from the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan (SSMP), WDFW plans to develop Regional Management Plans (RPMs) for each of the steelhead Distinct Population Segments (DPSs) on the Washington coast: the Coastal Olympic Peninsula DPS and the Southwest Washington DPS. That process will further develop the management strategies presented in the CSPIP, in part by setting long-term conservation objectives and by including Integrated Population Model (IPM) based Management Strategy Evaluations (MSEs) to assess the effectiveness of multiple harvest control rules (e.g., catch or effort related limits) in supporting healthy steelhead runs and sustainable fisheries in the long-term. WDFW will use these tools to anticipate and publicly communicate recreational steelhead fishery regulations further in advance of the fishery season than previously possible.
Implementing the CSPIP requires an estimated biennial budget of $5.9 million (including indirect costs) above current appropriations, with most of this amount dedicated to freshwater sport fishery monitoring. WDFW intends to implement the CSPIP during the 2023-2025 biennium budget period. Among other implications, failure to fund this plan would: (1) result in continued uncertainty regarding coastal steelhead fishery impacts, which could lead to fishery closures, (2) hinder the development of Regional Management Plans, including long-term coastal steelhead conservation objectives and Management Strategy Evaluations and (3) slow the pace of critical scientific research needed to improve steelhead fishery management. This plan constitutes a major step forward for coastal steelhead fisheries management that supports conservation while providing sustainable recreational fishing opportunities for years to come. Adaptive management, community engagement, and refinement of quantitative tools as new data becomes available will persist in perpetuity, with the understanding that reevaluation and adaptation are inherent elements of this new paradigm.