In a lot of ways, steelhead epitomize fly fishing in the Pacific Northwest. They’re an iconic species, and a finite, threatened, and dwindling resource. This year, poor ocean conditions are exacerbated by dams, logging, livestock, water extraction, and development of natal watersheds. In Idaho, returns are 60% of what they were last year, and 40% of their five year average.
Everyone- the Feds, Idaho Game and Fish, steelhead anglers, guides, and outfitters- all agree on the importance of protecting wild steelhead. But protecting the species means different things to different stakeholders. Idaho will close their steelhead season early, December 7th, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Portland-based NGO Conservation Angler. Since 2010, Idaho Game and Fish has been managing their recreational steelhead fishery without a federally approved conservation plan designed to protect wild steelhead; with this year’s low returns, conservationists fear incidental take or catch & release mortality of wild fish would further jeopardize steelhead runs.
Steelhead have baggage- environmental, ecological, political, economic. Recovery hinges on acknowledging that baggage, working with all invested parties, and prioritizing the needs of the species over any one constituency.
We’ll see what happens.