Steelhead

A paperwork problem that was subject to legal action and that nearly cut off fishing seasons across North Central Idaho last December was cleared up Friday, March 15, by the federal agency that regulates oceangoing fish. The National Marine Fisheries Service – a branch of NOAA – decided Idaho’s steelhead fishing plan “provides necessary protections for salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.”

With the paperwork issue having been addressed, Idaho Fish and Game moved to reopen two river sections that had been closed under a settlement that headed off a lawsuit in December and that was set to expire Friday. IDFG reopened steelhead fishing on the South Fork Clearwater River upstream of the Mount Idaho Grade Bridge as well as on the main Salmon River between Warren Creek and the Copper Mine Boat Ramp.

Bag limits are two fish daily in the South Fork Clearwater and in the Snake River from the Dug Bar Boat Ramp to Hells Canyon Dam. Bag limit is one fish daily in the other open waters: the mainstem Clearwater, North Fork Clearwater, Middle Fork Clearwater, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, and the Snake River from the Washington state line upstream to the Dug Bar Boat Ramp.

“During this difficult period, we greatly appreciate the patience of anglers, outfitters and guides, and other businesses and communities that rely on steelhead fishing,” Idaho Fish and Game fisheries bureau chief Jim Fredericks said in a press release. “While it was NOAA’s inaction that created this situation, we appreciate NOAA staff working diligently to expedite this permit in a valid and legally defensible way and completing it when promised, despite a federal government shutdown that lasted more than a month.” 

“We received more than 1,000 letters from fishing groups, environmental groups, government officials, and interested citizens during our public comment period on Idaho’s proposed plan,” Allyson Purcell, branch chief in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region, said in a release by the federal agency. “This level of involvement demonstrates how important these fish are to the Pacific Northwest communities.”

The federal press release says the approved plan involves new protections for wild steelhead, in particular, that Idaho will implement “additional conservation measures when natural-origin steelhead abundance is projected to fall below threshold levels.”

If the number of fish seen at Ice Harbor Dam dips below levels detailed in the documentation, “fishery managers would work with NMFS to determine what additional measures would be incorporated to reduce encounters of natural-origin steelhead,” according to NOAA’s decision.

The levels are based on the predicted number of fish bound for each of five rivers via Ice Harbor Dam, with thresholds as follows: sub-450 headed to the Lower Snake, sub-1,500 headed to the Clearwater, sub-1,200 headed to the Grande Ronde, sub-300 headed to the Imnaha, and sub-2,850 headed to the Salmon River.

The additional measures would “depend on how many consecutive years of low abundance have been observed and/or are forecasted,” the decision document states. “For example, in the first year of forecasted low abundance, fishery managers may institute a change such as a decrease in bag limits, but in the second consecutive year of forecasted low abundance, fishery managers may decrease bag limits and prohibit fishing in certain areas.”

By spawning with multiple age classes all together, steelhead can “fill in” weak classes – but that ability is reduced if there are multiple weak classes in a row. While the state’s plan doesn’t spell out exactly what steps Idaho would take, the state has “committed to furthering our understanding of wild steelhead distribution related to hatchery fish distribution, encounter rates, and catch-and-release mortality rates,” Fredericks told the Free Press Friday. “As we develop that science, we’ll use it to inform the conservation measures.”

The decision and related documents can be read in full online at the westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov website at https://bit.ly/2UAaNlr.

Idaho’s Congressional delegation issued a joint statement applauding NOAA’s decision and praising the federal agency for completing the paperwork on time despite a delay due to a shutdown brought on by disagreement over federal budget funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

“In the wake of the shutdown, Idaho’s leaders engaged in multiple conversations urging NOAA to complete the permit quickly despite delays, especially before the temporary settlement agreement expires,” the joint statement by congressmen Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson and Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo noted. “Today, thanks to NOAA and Idaho Fish and Game’s hard work and prioritization of this important issue, the permit was reissued.”

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