Steelhead Harvest

In response to several hundred people who provided comment on the proposed hatchery steelhead harvest season, Jim Fredericks, the Chief of Fisheries provided the following message. 


steelhead fishing
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Martin Koenig

"Dear Angler:

Thank you for providing input to IDFG regarding the proposed fall 2017 steelhead harvest season. We received input from over 1,200 people originating from 30 states and three countries. Overall, respondents were nearly equally split on whether they supported harvest opportunity for hatchery fish in excess to hatchery brood stock needs, or continuation of the catch-and-release restrictions for all steelhead, hatchery and wild.

Though we heard very differing opinions and perspectives about steelhead management, the passion for steelhead and steelhead fishing shared by all respondents was clear. As you’ve likely heard, the IDFG Commission approved the proposal to allow harvest of hatchery steelhead (visually identified by a missing adipose fin) beginning October 15th in traditional steelhead fishing areas of the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers. This undoubtedly pleases many of you, but comes as a disappointment to others.

Input we received from those not supportive of a harvest season included some common themes, and though I recognize providing additional rationale won’t satisfy everyone, I wanted to take the opportunity to address the primary concerns we heard.

Many people expressed their concerns about the recent declines to Idaho’s steelhead runs, both hatchery and wild, and supported foregoing harvest for a year (or more) if it would help populations recover. The willingness to sacrifice short-term opportunity for longer term benefits was impressive and appreciated. Fisheries staff shares the concern about the future of steelhead runs, both hatchery and wild, and we would not have proposed a harvest season without the confidence it will not harm future returns of hatchery or wild steelhead.

For over 30 years, Idaho has not allowed sport anglers to harvest wild steelhead, and this is no different. As the overall steelhead run improved through September, fishery managers realized foregoing harvest on hatchery fish was not necessary to ensure future hatchery production goals would be met and would result in too many hatchery steelhead returning to hatchery weirs.

The primary purpose of the hatchery steelhead programs is to offset the loss of wild steelhead impacted by Snake and Columbia River hydropower dams, and replace lost harvest opportunity for sport and tribal fisheries. We now project over 20,000 hatchery steelhead above the 4,200 we need to fill the Idaho hatcheries to capacity will be returning to Idaho rivers this year. Simply put, we can’t use the rest in the hatchery program, and there is no conservation benefit to wild steelhead by allowing excess hatchery steelhead to go unharvested, nor does it improve future hatchery returns.

Many anglers voiced strong concern specifically for wild steelhead, and the potential catch–and-release impacts to wild steelhead associated with a hatchery steelhead harvest fishery. We are confident that fishery impacts to wild fish are minimal and do not put wild steelhead populations at risk.

Our confidence is based on science, not guesswork. Because wild steelhead are listed as Threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, our fisheries are only authorized under federal permit guidelines. The permitting authority, NOAA, is responsible for evaluating impacts associated with various activities on wild steelhead, including downstream sport and tribal fishing. In the 5-year status review on the status of Snake River salmon and steelhead NOAA concluded, “New information available since the last ESA status review indicates harvest impacts have decreased slightly, but research impacts have increased. Impacts from these sources of mortality are not considered to be major limiting factors for these ESUs and DPS [populations].”

As part of the authorization to hold fisheries, IDFG annually reports to NOAA the estimated impacts to wild steelhead associated with our fisheries. Along with Chinook salmon, our steelhead fisheries are monitored far more intensively than any other fisheries in the state. This enables reliable estimates of the number of hatchery steelhead harvested and wild and hatchery steelhead released.

Numbers vary from year-to-year, but on average, angler surveys show steelhead anglers handle about 2/3 of the steelhead returning to Idaho each year. Additionally, studies show up to 5% of the steelhead caught and released may die. Applying the catch-and-release mortality rate to the estimated number of wild steelhead handled tells us that about 3.2% of the total wild steelhead population may be killed by anglers on a given year. From another perspective, 96.8% of wild steelhead are unaffected by angling. Those mortality rates are not high enough to affect wild steelhead at the population level.

I recognize there are some who believe our estimates of the percentage of wild steelhead handled are low, or that we underestimate hooking mortality. The estimates are based on the best available science. As we learn more, we will continue to refine our estimates of impacts. We are currently conducting a radio telemetry study that will help us understand the overlap in wild and hatchery steelhead in the Clearwater River and the resulting exposure to the fishery.  Though the study isn’t complete, it’s apparent that hatchery and wild steelhead are separated by both time and location for much of the year. Many wild steelhead move through areas open to steelhead fishing quickly, and are not continually exposed to angling.

Also related to catch-and-release mortality, several people advocated the Commission adopt a rule prohibiting the removal of wild steelhead from the water. IDFG encourages anglers to handle wild steelhead carefully and minimize time out of water. We do not, however, believe rules prohibiting removal of fish from the water are necessary, nor do we believe the current scientific literature supports such regulations.  

Nevertheless, we recognize questions remain related to impacts of air exposure to adult fish or the embryos carried by females. For that reason, IDFG and the University of Idaho are in the second year of two projects to evaluate impacts of air exposure on both steelhead and resident trout.  If we (or other researchers) find compelling evidence that a regulation is warranted to ensure conservation of wild steelhead (and other species) we will propose rules to our Commission. If not, we will continue to use an approach favoring education over regulation and not deny an angler the opportunity to capture a special moment with a quick photo.

Some of the same commenters suggested the Commission adopt a no-bait regulation to minimize impacts on wild steelhead. The idea that bait fishing can have a higher hooking mortality rate than fishing with artificial flies and lures is well known by anglers, and is supported by numerous prior studies on a variety of trout species. What’s less recognized is the difference between a “slack-line” bait fishery and a “tight-line” bait fishery.  

Hooking mortality is primarily a function of where the fish is hooked, not whether the hook has bait on it. Fish that “swallow the hook” have a higher mortality than fish hooked in the mouth, regardless of the gear type. Tight line techniques, which describe virtually all steelhead bait angling, is far less likely to result in deep hooking than slack line fisheries. Also of importance, adult salmon and steelhead do not actively feed once they arrive in freshwater, so while they do strike at bait, it is more out of aggression than with the intention of swallowing the bait as food. In fact, recently completed and soon-to-be published research shows no significant difference in hooking location based on gear type in an Idaho steelhead fishery.  

Moreover, the 5% catch-and-release mortality rate we use to estimate impacts on wild steelhead incorporates all gear types. An important consideration for anglers and managers is how much one group of anglers should be denied opportunity in an effort to get the 5% even lower? Consider that another factor associated with catch-and-release mortality is handling time. In conjunction with the IDFG air exposure research project, observers have recorded playing time of steelhead anglers using fly and non-fly equipment. Perhaps not surprisingly, fly anglers had significantly longer playing time, about twice that of other angler types. I certainly don’t believe the difference in playing time warrants regulation by different gear types, but I do believe it’s a good reminder that we as anglers would do well to focus on our collective interest and refrain from pointing the finger at each other’s preferred fishing methods.

Idaho, with the support of the angling community, has a long history of being a conservation leader in the management of wild steelhead in the Columbia River basin. Idaho recognized the challenge of managing a “mixed-stock” fishery in the 1980s, and led the effort to mark all hatchery steelhead with an adipose fin clip thereby allowing harvest of hatchery steelhead while protecting wild steelhead with mandatory catch and release regulations.

In that same time period, Idaho identified vast geographical river drainages that would be set-aside and managed for wild steelhead. We do not release hatchery steelhead in many rivers in the Salmon and Clearwater basins and as a result of this decision 85% of the 5,000 miles of wild steelhead spawning and rearing habitat is closed to steelhead fishing – even on a catch and release basis.

Over the last decade, we initiated the Columbia Basin’s most comprehensive genetic monitoring program for wild steelhead. The newly implemented genetic tools provide us unprecedented ability to identify and enumerate wild steelhead to population group and identify unclipped hatchery fish to hatchery of origin.

No one likes to see below average returns of hatchery or wild steelhead, or a trend that is anything but positive, but the fact is steelhead are a resilient species. Each year-class of outmigrating smolts and each run of spawners are made up of multiple age classes. That variability in life-history provides a biological ability to hedge against bad years. We have seen comparably low abundances in the past followed by rapid recovery.

As our history demonstrates, IDFG and the IFG Commission have been and remain committed to wild steelhead recovery. If there was any uncertainty about whether a harvest fishery on hatchery fish put wild steelhead at risk, staff would not have proposed the fishery to the Commission, and the Commission would not have adopted the proposal.

Again, I want to thank you for your input and interest in Idaho’s steelhead fisheries."