Idaho’s salmon and steelhead populations are in serious decline and our wild runs are teetering on the brink of extinction. Spend a few hours in Idaho’s river towns and you will see that fishing businesses and outfitters are taking a hit from the lack of steelhead, while our state leaders are silently watching our fish go extinct. As of today, only 10,005 wild steelhead have returned, less than a third of what we saw three years ago. These numbers continue to fall, creating a situation so dire that legal wrangling almost cost Idahoans the ability to have a hatchery-based steelhead fishing season this year. Had the season been cancelled, many small businesses, indeed entire communities, that depend on steelhead fishing to float their economies would have suffered.
The season was only saved because the state and concerned parties were able to hammer out an agreement in which everybody compromised. Key to reaching agreement was the fact that Idaho would secure the necessary permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service no later than March 15th.
The federal government shutdown now threatens Idaho’s ability to keep the hatchery-based steelhead season open. As a result of the current federal government shutdown, Idaho’s permit application is sitting on a desk in an empty office.
While some politicians may view the fishery biologists working to protect Idaho’s steelhead – and our steelhead fishing season – as non-essential employees, we sure don’t. Ensuring that the Idaho Fish and Game is able to administer a steelhead fishing season that allows hatchery-based steelhead to be harvested while not harming our wild runs is absolutely essential to many Idaho communities and families.
Idaho families that depend on healthy runs of salmon and steelhead are essential. These people matter, their jobs matter and these fish matter.
Idaho anglers have taken steps to minimize harm to incidentally caught wild fish. While the loss of any wild Idaho steelhead is a terrible thing, the harm caused by Idaho anglers pales in comparison to the catastrophic mortality inflicted on our fish as they migrate to and from the Pacific Ocean. Idaho salmon and steelhead smolts must migrate through slack water reservoirs full of warm water, eight downstream dams, survive and grow in the ocean, and then come back again in reverse as adults. With downstream causes killing 98.6 percent of our steelhead, Northwest leaders and agencies from all corners of the state, individual Idahoans, community business leaders, and outfitters and guides must stick together and focus on the real problem. It is time to get serious about saving Idaho’s salmon and steelhead.
In the meantime, the government shutdown doesn’t help the situation and it is threatening Idaho families whose livelihoods depend on a hatchery-based steelhead season. Idaho’s families don’t have the luxury of sitting out another government shutdown. The clock is ticking. Idaho needs a permit. Or the steelhead season will close indefinitely on March 15th.
Brad Smith is the North Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League.