A fisherman wades the waters of Sultan River on June 5 at Sportsman Park in Sultan. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

A fisherman wades the waters of Sultan River on June 5 at Sportsman Park in Sultan. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Despite vanishing steelhead, state won’t delay fishing season

Wild winter steelhead are at a historic low in the Sultan River, with just 55 of the fish counted in 2019.

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.

The Sultan River is a tributary to the Snohomish Basin. Wild steelhead counts in the past two years were the lowest in a decade. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sultan River is a tributary to the Snohomish Basin. Wild steelhead counts in the past two years were the lowest in a decade. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Split opinions

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; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

A wild steelhead, which has an intact adipose fin between the tail and dorsal fins. (NOAA)

A wild steelhead, which has an intact adipose fin between the tail and dorsal fins. (NOAA)

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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Kim Skarda points at her home on a map on Thursday, June 20, 2024 in Concrete, Washington. A community called Sauk River Estates has a very steep slope above it. There is a DNR-approved timber sale that boarders the estate properties, yet they were not consulted about the sale before approval. The community has already appealed the sale and has hired their own geologist to conduct a slope stability report at the site. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Beneath steep slope, Concrete neighbors fear landslides from logging above

Nielsen Brothers plans to cut 54 acres of timber directly behind the community of 83 homes. Locals said they were never consulted.

Law enforcement respond to a person hit by a train near the Port of Everett Mount Baker Terminal on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
2 killed in waterfront train crashes were near Mukilteo ‘quiet zone’

In June, two people were hit by trains on separate days near Mukilteo Boulevard. “These situations are incredibly tragic,” Everett’s mayor said.

Rob Plotnikoff takes a measurement as a part of the county's State of Our Waters survey at Tambark Creek in Bothell, Washington on Monday, July 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Snohomish County stream team bushwhacks a path to healthier waterways

This summer, the crew of three will survey 40 sites for the State of Our Waters program. It’s science in locals’ backyards.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
4th suspect arrested after Mountlake Terrace home robbery

Police arrested Taievion Rogers, 19, on Tuesday. Prosecutors charged his three alleged accomplices in April.

A 10 acre parcel off of Highway 99, between 240th and 242nd Street Southwest that the city of Edmonds is currently in the process of acquiring on Monday, July 10, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edmonds ditches $37M Landmark public park project off Highway 99

The previous mayor envisioned parks and more in south Edmonds, in a historically neglected area. The new administration is battling budget woes.

Edmonds school official sworn in as Mount Vernon supe

Victor Vergara took his oath of office last week. He was assistant superintendent of equity and student success in Edmonds.

Big Lots announces it will shutter Everett and Lynnwood stores

Marysville store will remain open for now as declining sales and downturn in consumer spending were factors in the closures.

President Joe Biden speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, N.C., on April 14, 2022. Biden plans to nominate Michael Barr  to be the Federal Reserve's vice chairman of supervision. The selection of Barr comes after Biden's first choice for the Fed post, Sarah Bloom Raskin, withdrew her nomination a month ago (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Washington Democrats voice support for Biden’s decision to drop out of presidential race

Some quickly endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris to replace him on the ballot.

Everett
Teenager in stable condition after Everett drive-by shooting Saturday

Major Crime Unit detectives were looking for two suspects believed to have shot the teenager in the 600 block of 124th Street SW.

Miners Complex tops 500 acres in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Nine lightning-caused fires force trail closures and warnings 21 miles east of Darrington. No homes are threatened.

FILE — President Joe Biden arrives for a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 3, 2024. Biden abandoned his campaign for a second term under intense pressure from fellow Democrats on Sunday, July 21, upending the race for the White House in a dramatic last-minute bid to find a new candidate who can stop former President Donald Trump from returning to the White House. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Biden drops out of race, endorses vice president Kamala Harris

The president announced the decision on social media Sunday.

A Mukilteo firefighter waves out of a fire truck. (Photo provided by Mukilteo Fire Department)
Mukilteo levy lid lift will hike average tax bill about $180 more a year

The lift will fund six more workers, ambulances, equipment and medical supplies. Opponents call it unnecessary.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.