Speaking up for our Homewaters
Jeff Hickman, Nehalem River Steward and wild fish advocate wrote an opinion piece this month on his concerns for the future of wild fish in his homewaters. In this piece, Jeff shares the impacts of the fishing regulations on the Olympic Pensula to Oregon, current population trends on his homewaters, and how we all can help our beautiful rivers in the Pacific Northwest to work on restoring abundant Wild fish.
Conserving Today to Preserve Tomorrow
For twenty years, I have been fishing and guiding Oregon's north coast rivers. My wife and I along with our four year old son live on the coast in Nehalem, Oregon. As a family we love and cherish the outdoors. To give back, I am a volunteer River Steward on the Nehalem River for the Native Fish Society. My son is the inspiration for my work in conservation, and I want to provide him with the opportunity to fish for wild steelhead long into the future. I am deeply concerned about the current and future population health of our Oregon Coast wild Steelhead.
This year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) enacted emergency regulations on the Olympic Peninsula’s rivers. These regulations include: a shorter season, no fishing from a floating device, implementing selective gear rules, and requiring the release of all wild rainbow trout. These regulation changes follow four seasons of not achieving the minimal number of adult wild steelhead necessary to achieve and maintain a healthy population in the watersheds of the Olympic Peninsula. WDFW has forecasted wild runs to be below critical abundance in the winter of 2021 for many of these rivers.
The actions by WDFW were necessary to protect adult wild steelhead. Populations of these fish have been plummeting with no recovery in sight. My thoughts go out to the guides and anglers whose fishing methods must change. Will WDFW’s next course of action be eliminating angling? Such a move would be devastating to the communities and economies of the Olympic Peninsula.
These regulation changes in Washington had a direct affect on our rivers here in Oregon. Many traditional float anglers from Washington and other states traveled to Oregon to fish. This increase in pressure, coupled with our Oregon Coast wild steelhead populations’ current status, is very concerning.
In 2018 and 2019, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) reported that wild steelhead populations of the north coast rivers, including the Necanicum, Nestucca, Wilson, Trask, Kilchis and Nehalem Rivers, all fell below critical abundance. “Critical abundance” is identified as a threshold below which the population’s conservation could be in jeopardy if the downward trend continues.
ODFW’s own management plan stipulates that the department implement changes if populations are below critical abundance for two successive years, precisely what happened in 2018 and 2019. ODFW has not identified conservation actions to be executed when populations reach critical levels. Unfortunately, the status quo continues, and ODFW has not implemented any actions to ensure the conservation of these fish into the future.
How long is too long before we show concern? Wild steelhead returns on the Oregon Coast were extremely low this year. The same situation as Washington's Olympic Peninsula except ODFW made no management changes. So the responsibility lays in our hands as anglers. What can we do today as anglers that will help our rivers, fish, and economies in the future?
Over the past ten years, I have seen pressures from anglers increase each year on all of our north coast streams. We have more anglers fishing for fewer fish than ever. Next season, and seasons ahead, I encourage everyone to be a part of the solution by using angling strategies that reduce impacts on wild fish. Don’t fish on redds, steelhead are highly vulnerable when spawning and staging sitting in shallow water and on gravel beds. Giving steelhead space will allow them to reproduce and create another generation of wild fish. Consider limiting your catch. We all love those days of landing multiple fish, but we don’t have enough fish to go around and each encounter with an angler increases stress experienced by wild fish and potential mortality. Next season, consider taking a pledge to catch one fish and be done for the day. Use Barbless hooks, don't use bait, handle all fish with care, keep fish in the water, we know that air exposure harms fish and reduces their ability to successfully spawn. The list goes on. We can be part of the problem or part of the solution.
I fear that we are at a tipping point. As anglers, let’s ensure we keep wild steelhead around. Let’s all limit our impact on these fish, and conserve the opportunity to angle long into the future.
Jeff Hickman is the owner and head guide at Fish the Swing, guiding trips throughout the Pacific Northwest. In his off time, Jeff volunteers countless hours and his voice to wild native fish on all the rivers that he loves. For more information or to contact Jeff, get in touch with our Northern Oregon Coordinator Liz Perkin at email@example.com today.