SULTAN — A count of wild winter steelhead on the Sultan River came in at an all-time low in 2018.
State biologists counted just 28 of the fish, considered by the federal government to be a threatened species.
County scientists thought they’d found a simple way to help the trout recover on this key tributary. The state could delay the summer fishing season on the Skykomish a few weeks, until the majority of the fish are done spawning and off to the ocean, out of anglers’ reach.
But the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said fishing doesn’t make a large enough impact on the fish to delay the season.
In 2019, the count recorded slightly more fish, 55, but it was still the second-lowest number on record.
In the broader Snohomish watershed — the Snohomish River and all its tributaries, including the Sultan — the wild winter steelhead population has dropped by thousands since the 1980s, earning its threatened designation under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2007.
Last year’s numbers confirmed that trend.
The Skykomish fishery used to open June 1. Early in 2019, biologists with the Snohomish County Public Utilities District asked Fish and Wildlife to push that back to June 15. Instead, opening day moved in the opposite direction to May 25, the Saturday before Memorial Day 2019, as part of a statewide move to open fishing seasons everywhere on the same date.
After the season ended, the PUD filed a formal proposal, asking for the change again. Fish and Wildlife denied the request in November because fishing impacted less then 4.2% of the steelhead population, a federally acceptable threshold.
As native steelhead continue to decline on the Sultan and Skykomish rivers in Snohomish County, some biologists and conservation-minded anglers have argued the state hasn’t seized an opportunity for an easy fix.
Why they’re asking
On opening day last year, PUD Senior Environmental Coordinator Larry Lowe went out to the Lewis Street Park boat launch in Monroe for fieldwork. The previous day, he’d spotted four wild winter steelhead actively spawning just upriver from the launch, where about 50 boats carrying perhaps 200 anglers prepared to take off.
On average from 2012 to 2019, the PUD estimates about 25% of the Sultan’s steelhead are in the river on or after May 23, this year’s opening day.
By June 1, that drops to 10%. On June 15, it’s 3%.
Wild steelhead are vulnerable all throughout their journey to the ocean and back to their spawning grounds, including while they travel through popular fishing destinations like the Skykomish.
The summer fishing season doesn’t target wild steelhead. Anglers are usually after steelhead from the Reiter hatchery, or Chinook from the Wallace hatchery.
Yet some wild fish end up getting caught because people don’t know the difference.
Or young wild steelhead don’t survive catch and release.
That’s why the district’s proposal also asked to restrict baiting between July 15 and Jan. 31. Using bait kills more young steelhead trout, known as smolts, than other catch methods, Lowe said.
The Snohomish County PUD is working on steelhead recovery for both environmental and financial reasons. The district operates the Jackson Hydroelectric Project on the Sultan River, so it’s charged with mitigating the impact the dam has on fish. The district has led $21 million in fish habitat projects along the river — funded by utility ratepayers — and closely monitors population numbers, Lowe said.
But fishing is not the only cause of the steelheads’ demise, according to the PUD.
“They face a lot of challenges: estuary habitat, the sea lions and seals, water quality,” Lowe said.
Suction dredge mining in the upper Sultan has also hurt the fish.
Changing the start of the steelhead fishing season, alone, may not save the species. It’s one small part of a large, complex issue. But Lowe said it would be progress.
“We just look at this as something within our control,” he said.
Bill McMillan is a local fishing legend. He has written several books about steelhead fishing and has dedicated much of his life to gathering data on wild fish.
He sees pushing back opening day as a necessary step to keep wild winter steelhead around for future generations to catch.
“What the PUD has suggested is a very sensible alternative,” he said. “ … If folks really want more salmon and steelhead to come back to the Sultan, they’re going to have to accept those necessities for bringing that habitat back into productivity.”
Not all anglers share his opinion.
Local recreational fishing seasons have gotten shorter and shorter over the past few years as fish populations decline, Mark Spada of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club said.
The Skykomish offers one of the last viable salmon runs for fishing in the region, he said.
So recreational anglers balk at the idea of giving up another three weeks of the season.
The PUD’s ask also comes as hatchery summer steelhead and summer Chinook salmon return to the river earlier and earlier, Spada said. A few years ago, the fish wouldn’t show up in the Skykomish until the middle of June. Recently, Spada said many of the fish had already returned to the hatchery by June 1. So anglers missed out.
The fall Coho salmon season has also shrunk from a few months to a few weeks, he said. With fewer opportunities for local recreational anglers to get out on the river, Spada said guides and tackle shops also suffer.
“The whole recreational fishing community,” he said, “is just taking hit after hit after hit.”
Below the threshold
This year, Lowe said, expectations for steelhead turnout are meager once again.
Up north, a low forecast for the Skagit River’s steelhead population led fish and wildlife to close the short catch-and-release season between February and April that started in 2018.
On the Sultan, Fish and Wildlife regional fish manager Edward Eleazer said the fishing impact on steelhead doesn’t warrant any changes.
The department doesn’t track data on the Sultan River specifically — but it does for the Snohomish watershed.
The agency estimates fishing impacted 2.2% of wild winter steelhead in the entire Snohomish watershed. That’s well below the 4.2% allowed by federal regulatory agencies.
“All the data shows we’re not having a significant impact,” Eleazer said. “So there’s a disconnect between where (the PUD) is coming from and where we’re coming from.”
McMillan has a different take. The steelhead population continues to decline, so something needs to change, he said.
“Looking at the data, there’s no arguing it,” he said. “If you want to recover that section of the Sultan River that the PUD has put a lot of money into to recover, you can’t do so without boosting the population numbers.”
The Sultan and Skykomish rivers are just a small piece of the watershed.
In the 1980s, the Snohomish watershed saw wild winter steelhead runs above 10,000. Now, Eleazer said they see just above 1,000. That’s a far cry from the 6,500 figure that state and federal fisheries managers would like to see.
“We’re way below the goal of where we want to be,” Eleazer said.
Since 2007, groups all throughout Puget Sound — including the PUD, local tribes, and fish and wildlife — have invested more than $200 million to acquire and restore fish habitat.
McMillan sees the Sultan’s wild winter steelhead population as an essential piece of that investment. They’re a unique stock that adds to the diversity and resilience of a struggling species, he said.
“It’s not just about the Snohomish system and the Sultan,” he said. “It’s really about Puget Sound.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.
What’s the difference between hatchery and wild steelhead?
Native fish hatch in the river, versus a hatchery.
You can tell the difference between the two by looking for the adipose fin on the fish’s back, between the tail and dorsal fins.
Most hatcheries clip the adipose fin of baby fish when they are released.
Mining restrictions proposed in state Senate
A bill that was introduced in the state Senate last year, but did not pass, would have heavily restricted suction dredge mining throughout the state. It was reintroduced in the Senate this year as SB 5322.
A steelhead suit
Four nonprofits filed a joint lawsuit this week against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for issuing a permit to Cooke Aquaculture for steelhead farms in marine waters of Skagit and Kitsap counties.
The organizations argue raising steelhead in floating net pens would jeopardize the region’s wild steelhead, salmon and endangered southern resident orcas.