Idaho Mulls Scrubbing
by Eric Barker
Threat of lawsuit over NOAA Fisheries permitting has
state wildlife officials considering options during dismal run
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission could decide during its meeting today in Coeur d'Alene to shut down the steelhead fishing season Dec. 7 and not open the spring season.
The move to close fishing for hatchery steelhead would be made in response to the threat of a lawsuit issued by a small cadre of fishing and conservation groups who believe this year's return of protected wild steelhead is so low that fishing should be curtailed to guard against any incidental mortality. Wild Snake River steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. While regulations require anglers to release any wild fish they catch, a tiny fraction of those released fish die from the experience.
Last month the groups -- including Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater, the Conservation Angler, Snake River Water Keeper and the Wild Fish Conservancy -- filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore and members of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission. That notice expires Dec. 7.
Idaho's Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan gives the state cover under the ESA to incidentally harm a small percentage of protected wild steelhead during the course of its recreational steelhead fishery. That plan expired in 2009. The state submitted a new monitoring and evaluation plan the same year, but officials at Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration let it sit idle while working on other pressing issues.
The federal agency released a draft of the plan last week and is now taking public comments on it while reviewing the plan and completing other necessary documentation under the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act. That process could be completed and a plan approved late this winter or early next spring. But the lack of an approved plan leaves the state vulnerable to court challenge, even though federal fisheries officials are on record as saying fishing for hatchery steelhead poses little threat to protected wild fish.
Officials in the department's Fisheries Bureau have not yet made an official recommendation to the commission, but Jim Fredericks, chief of the bureau, said one will be made prior to the meeting. Earlier this week, Department Director Virgil Moore said he would opt for closing fishing rather than going to court.
"I'm not willing to risk going to court and paying fines and legal fees because NOAA Fisheries has not been able get our permit completed," said Moore. Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United at Boise, said the groups have not decided collectively or individually whether they will move forward with the lawsuit.
"We sent notice of intent because there was no plan," he said. "There is now a draft plan. I think it's important for folks to be looking at the draft plan to see if it's sufficient or not."
If the commission ends steelhead fishing for the rest of the year and into next spring, it would be the first time in decades Idaho hasn't had a full season. Catch-and-release fishing would not be allowed under the closure.
"Catch and release is off the table," Fredericks said. "There would be incidental catch and release handling of wild steelhead, and that is what we are not permitted for."
Fredericks said if steelhead fishing is closed, it would be to avoid a lawsuit and not as a conservation measure. Fisheries officials in Oregon and Washington have told their Idaho counterparts that they won't close their seasons even if Idaho chooses to do so. The two states are not subject to the potential lawsuit.
"Our understanding is Washington will continue to keep fishing, as well as Oregon," Fredericks said. "This isn't a conservation issue, it's a matter of administration and a permit issue. If there is not a threat of litigation for them they should fish."
This year's steelhead run is one of the worst on record. Between July 1 and Nov. 12, only about 94,400 steelhead -- including 29,674 wild fish -- have been counted passing Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. That is the lowest number of steelhead recorded at the dam since 83,824 were counted there during the same time period in 1978. It's the lowest wild steelhead count at Bonneville Dam since 1996, when 29,021 were tallied there. Wild steelhead numbers have only been tracked at Bonneville Dam since 1994.
At Lower Granite Dam, this year's count of 46,418 total steelhead, including 10,062 wild fish, is the lowest recorded since 1994 when 38,947 total steelhead, including 6,281 wild fish, were observed.
In response to the low numbers, Idaho and the other two states slashed daily bag limits from three hatchery steelhead per day to just one. The move was made to ensure enough hatchery fish return to hatcheries for spawning.
If approved, the closure will come after the peak of angling efforts in some places, but just as seasons are starting to ramp up in others. Many anglers near Lewiston quit fishing following Thanksgiving. However, places like the Little Salmon River at Riggins, the South Fork of the Clearwater River and the upper Salmon River near Salmon see intense fishing pressure during the winter and spring months. The Rogers Dodge Steelhead Derby that kicks off Saturday and runs through Nov. 24 would not be affected.
Fredericks said it's possible the spring steelhead fishing season could be restored if NOAA Fisheries completes review of the state's monitoring and evaluation plan. Depending on location, Idaho's spring steelhead season closes anywhere from March 31 to May 15.
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