Group to State:
by Eric Barker
Conservation team wants to protect fish headed for Clearwater River; low numbers counted so far
A fishing conservation group has asked regional fisheries managers to shut down steelhead fishing in the Columbia and Snake river basins to protect the tiny number of wild fish bound mostly for the Clearwater River.
The Conservation Angler, based in Portland, Ore., said only 751 wild B-run steelhead bound for Idaho have passed Bonneville Dam this year and just 362 of those have crossed Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, the last leg the fish must negotiate on their journey to spawning grounds.
Both wild A-run and wild B-run steelhead are protected as a threatened species. B-run fish are larger and less plentiful than A-run steelhead. Longstanding regulations require anglers to release all wild steelhead unharmed, and this year emergency rules require anglers to release hatchery B-run fish as well.
The special rules, based on fish size, were adopted last fall because of the poor state of the B-run. Fisheries managers said they were needed to ensure hatcheries meet spawning goals.
The Conservation Angler contends that numbers of wild B-run fish are so low that even catch-and-release regulations could threaten the survival of the run. Though anglers must release wild steelhead, fisheries managers know some of those released fish die from injuries or exhaustion.
"Every wild B-run fish in Idaho is a precious gem and needs every possible opportunity to spawn successfully," said David Moskowitz, the group's executive director, in a letter addressed to Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore. "The ongoing fishery will cause mortalities to the wild B-run return now in Idaho rivers. Please close the fisheries in order to allow wild B-runs to spawn in their natal rivers and put some more wild fish 'in the bank' - so to speak - of Idaho's great rivers."
Jim Fredericks, chief of the Idaho Fish and Game's Fisheries Bureau, said ample precautions are in place to protect wild B-run steelhead. He said because numbers are so low, anglers will not encounter many of them. Also, the low number of hatchery fish returning and size restrictions limiting harvest to smaller steelhead mean much fewer people are fishing for steelhead this winter.
"Encounter rates go up and down with the number of fish out there to encounter. When populations are low, fewer wild fish are handled," he said. "Angler effort has been about a third of what it would be in a normal year, so encounter rates are even lower than they would be in our typical calculations."
An ongoing study that tracks both hatchery and wild steelhead movements in the Clearwater has shown that wild steelhead and hatchery fish don't congregate in the same places this time of year. Fredericks said most of the fishing pressure is aimed at places where hatchery fish are abundant.
Though the numbers are alarming, Fredericks said more B-run steelhead are expected to return to Idaho. He said as much as 25 to 30 percent of the run has yet to pass Lower Granite Dam. In addition, about 2,000 wild steelhead bound for the Clearwater River have returned this year. That number includes B-run steelhead that returned after just one year in the ocean, A-run steelhead bound for the Potlatch River, as well as B-run fish that didn't grow large enough during two years in the ocean to meet the technical definition of a B-run fish. B-run steelhead are defined at dam counting windows as those 31 inches or longer.
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