Words by Paul Moinester
Can you imagine what it would be like to wake up in Seattle on a misty March morning and struggle to decide which of Puget Sound’s prolific 49 wild steelhead rivers and streams to fish that day? Can you imagine what it would be like to catch two wild steelhead and be disappointed by how slow the day was? And can you imagine what it would feel like to wade waist-deep into the Snohomish River knowing that 225,000 wild steelhead were swimming around in those same waters?
Today, that reads like a steelhead fairytale – a “once upon a time story” that rivals the reality of Snow White. Because these days, Washington’s steelhead story feels more like a bad dream. But that magical reality existed not too long ago in Washington.
Back then, more steelhead returned to Washington than any region on earth. Back then, Washington was Steelhead Country, a wondrous place where our rivers ran silver and wild steelhead outnumbered anglers by orders of magnitude. Back then, the idea of leaving Washington and making the trek north to the Skeena, Dean, or Bulkley to chase steelhead was absurd.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Washington’s legendary rivers were producing mind-blowing numbers of wild steelhead: Nooksack – 169,00, Skagit – 149,000, Stillaguamish – 100,000, Snohomish – 224,000. Taken together, the size of the Puget Sound wild steelhead run at the turn of the century was 929,070 fish per year, with actual run totals surely topping one million fish when smaller creeks and watersheds are included. That’s a crazy number of wild steelhead, and that’s just Puget Sound! That number doesn’t include any wild steelhead from other prolific Washington steelhead systems out on the Olympic Peninsula and the mighty Columbia River Watershed.
One hundred and twenty years later, the number of wild steelhead has been reduced to a shadow of what it once was. The once steelhead-rich Puget Sound now supports a population of just 14,000 wild fish. Even rivers deemed “healthy” today like the Queets on the Olympic Peninsula have seen its steelhead population reduced from 81,633 steelhead in 1923 to a paltry 3,500 fish. This ubiquitous and precipitous decline has resulted in five of Washington’s seven distinct steelhead populations being listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, with the other two heading towards collapse.
Steelhead may be labeled a “game fish” in Washington, but for the last century, the state has managed wild steelhead like an abundant food fish under a model called maximum sustainable yield (MSY). This management strategy, which aims to maximize harvest and angling pressure, is widely attributed to causing the collapse of fisheries around the world. And in Washington, it has done just that, as MSY has enabled unsustainable steelhead harvest rates resulting in the decline of wild steelhead stocks statewide.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that eliminating two major threats to wild steelhead, hatcheries, and harvest, would enable resilient wild steelhead populations to recover and rebuild. What it does take is the strength in numbers and determination to convince state and federal fish managers to do the right thing for wild steelhead and adopt a conservation-oriented management approach – an approach that restores and sustains wild steelhead runs for future generations and preserves angling opportunity.
Wild steelhead are resilient creatures that have used their unrelenting determination to survive and overcome a myriad of obstacles that man has thrown in their path. But it is time for us to do our part and remove as many of those obstacles as we can. If we do that, these resilient fish will return in droves.
While we may never see 100,000 wild steelhead swimming in the Skagit, Nooksack, or Snohomish again, we have the ability to dramatically rebuild these runs to levels we have not seen in decades. We have the ability to make Steelhead Country great again. Now, our community just needs the power to make it happen.