In unfortunate, yet hopeful, news, the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service announced a review of Olympic Peninsula steelhead to determine if the species warrants Endangered Species Act protections. Frankly, this is a sad development for wild steelhead, because OP steelhead were often looked at as one of the remaining bright spots. On the other hand, however, a possible ESA listing would ensure strong federal oversight and resources dedicated for their recovery. But the truth is bleak–the steelhead runs in OP, like the rest of region, are failing.

The ESA is a foundational conservation law in the United States, with a long history of successfully preventing species becoming extinct and putting them on the road towards recovery. As it relates to salmon and steelhead, there are nine genetically distinct populations of Chinook Salmon, two populations of chum salmon, four populations of coho salmon, two populations of sockeye, and 11 populations of steelhead listed under the ESA. Because of the strong protections afforded by the ESA, these species have a chance for recovery. However, many of these listed species have not exhibited substantial progress towards recovery due to a multitude of challenges: climate change, ocean conditions, harvest, incidental catch, and habitat degradation being some of them. For example, how can one expect Snake River Chinook, sockeye, or steelhead to recover when the four lower Snake River dams continue to impede migrations, disrupt juvenile out-migration, and promote invasive species?

Back to the Olympic Peninsula steelhead designation–apologies for the digression. This potential ESA listing was initiated by the Conservation Angler and Wild Fish Conservancy in an official petition–the formal process requesting NOAA Fisheries to look into ESA designation. In it these organizations argue, “Olympic Peninsula steelhead are at risk of becoming an endangered species within the foreseeable future. The summer-run component is nearly extinct, and the winter-run component is declining and losing its life history diversity…The remnants of these runs that historically numbered in the tens of thousands face declining freshwater and marine habitat conditions, increasing recreational fishing pressure, and ongoing commercial harvest…Olympic Peninsula steelhead warrant protection under the [ESA].”

It just goes to show you that steelhead just about everywhere are struggling due to a myriad of factors and need intentional and strong protections to get them on the road towards recovery. Again, it’s sad, because while maybe not avoidable, proactive management decisions years ago could have improved this current situation, but, broadly speaking, Washington state managers’ inaction leaves OP steelhead with few options other than the ESA route.

“The Conservation Angler and Wild Fish Conservancy filed the petition because Olympic Peninsula steelhead merit protection under the Endangered Species Act,” John McMillan from the Conservation Angler added. “As demonstrated by the petition, the best available science demonstrates that Olympic Peninsula steelhead face demographic and other threats that put them at risk of extinction. For example, wild summer steelhead, which were once so abundant that they supported recreational fisheries, are nearly extirpated. Wild winter steelhead, which used to return in the tens of thousands, are mere shadows of their former abundance, with multiple populations failing to meet minimum abundance targets. Despite these trends, these fish are subjected to the highest harvest rates in Washington State. Hatcheries and harvest have reduced their life history diversity, putting the species at further risk of climate change impacts, which include lower summer flows, higher peak flows, and warmer summer water temperatures. Despite improved forestry practices and restoration efforts, these fish still suffer the consequences of historic and ongoing habitat destruction. For these and other reasons, The Conservation Angler and Wild Fish Conservancy felt compelled to file this petition as a critical step to ensuring these iconic fish receive the protections they deserve.”

NOAA Fisheries opened a 90-day petition (comment period) to determine if the agency will pursue an ESA designation. Head on over to this NOAA Fisheries link to learn more and share your input–comments close April 11th, 2023. If ESA designation be deemed warranted, and ultimately OP steelhead be listed, there will undoubtedly be harm felt throughout the PNW, particularly by guides and outfitters. But we all need to ask ourselves this question–Are you willing to swallow a hard pill and make sacrifices today, if it means future generations may have the opportunity to experience the magic and power of wild steelhead in the future?
Cover picture by John McMillan.

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