STEEL­HEAD RE­COV­ERY CLAIMS

The Idaho Statesman - - Front Page - BY ERIC BARKER Lewis­ton Tri­bune

The dis­pute over Idaho’s steel­head sea­son is play­ing out at least par­tially in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.

The fight over Idaho’s steel­head sea­son is be­ing played out at least par­tially in the court of pub­lic opin­ion with some peo­ple in­sist­ing fish­ing is be­ing shut down over a tech­ni­cal­ity while oth­ers say there is a sound con­ser­va­tion rea­son for sus­pend­ing an­gling.

Idaho is clos­ing the sea­son, ef­fec­tive Satur­day, to stave off a threat­ened law­suit by five con­ser­va­tion groups. The Con­ser­va­tion An­gler, Wild Fish Con­ser­vancy, Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clear­wa­ter, Snake River Water­keeper, Wild Salmon Rivers and the Wild Fish Con­ser­vancy said last month they would sue the state if it didn’t close fish­ing or agree to mea­sures to pro­tect wild fish. Idaho Rivers United pulled out of the group on Fri­day.

Idaho’s in­ci­den­tal take per­mit ex­pired eight years ago, and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has only re­cently be­gun to re­view the state’s ap­pli­ca­tion for a new one, which was first sub­mit­ted in 2010. The per­mit al­lows a small per­cent­age of wild steel­head listed as threat­ened un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act to be killed dur­ing the state’s hatch­ery steel­head fish­ery.

The new per­mit is not ex­pected to be ap­proved un­til March. Without a valid per­mit, lead­ers of the Idaho Depart­ment of Fish and Game and its gov­ern­ing Idaho Fish and Game Com­mis­sion opted to close the sea­son. They said they would al­most cer­tainly lose if a law­suit were filed and likely have to pay the con­ser­va­tion groups’ le­gal fees. They also said a judge could force the state to adopt reg­u­la­tions de­signed to pro­tect wild fish that they be­lieve are un­war­ranted.

“It’s not a con­ser­va­tion­re­lated is­sue,” said Fish and Game Di­rec­tor Vir­gil Moore.

Some of the con­ser­va­tion groups in­sist clos­ing the sea­son, or adopt­ing more strin­gent fish­ing reg­u­la­tions, is needed. The steel­head run is one of low­est on record. You have to go back to 1994 to find a year when fewer steel­head passed Lower Gran­ite Dam, the last dam fish must ne­go­ti­ate be­fore re­turn­ing to Idaho wa­ters. The 10,600 wild fish that have passed the dam this year make about 22 per­cent of the over­all run.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists say that num­ber is so low that ev­ery wild fish is pre­cious, and ex­treme steps should be taken to en­sure each one sur­vives to spawn.

“Our feel­ing is with the small num­ber of fish that Idaho needs to do some­thing to re­duce en­coun­ters,” said David Moskowitz, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Wild Fish Con­ser­vancy. “I think there are a num­ber of things we sug­gested to the depart­ment, and they took those off the ta­ble in our dis­cus­sions.”

FISH­ING TIES

In set­tle­ment talks, the groups asked the state to take steps such as for­bid­ding fish­ing for steel­head from boats, ban­ning bait or the use of mul­ti­ple hooks and tre­ble hooks on lures and not al­low­ing peo­ple to briefly re­move wild fish from the wa­ter for pic­tures, some­times called “hero shots.”

Much of the de­bate boils down to the de­gree to which wild steel­head are harmed and how many ul­ti­mately per­ish af­ter be­ing caught and re­leased by an­glers. It is a dif­fi­cult thing to mea­sure, and there is a wide range of mor­tal­ity es­ti­mates con­nected to nu­mer­ous stud­ies on the is­sue.

Ev­ery­one agrees that fish­ing does pose a threat to wild fish, even though an­glers are re­quired to re­lease them un­harmed. Idaho Fish and Game bi­ol­o­gists say on av­er­age about 3.2 per­cent of the wild steel­head run dies af­ter be­ing caught and re­leased. They ar­rive at the num­ber by as­sum­ing that about 5 per­cent of fish caught and re­leased per­ish and about 64 per­cent of wild fish in the state are caught dur­ing steel­head fish­ing sea­sons.

Lance Heb­don said the 5 per­cent mor­tal­ity es­ti­mate, which has its ori­gins in a Cana­dian study, is widely used in the North­west and has been en­dorsed by Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion Fish­eries, but the fed­eral agency has also said the topic de­serves more in­quiry.

“We haven’t seen any­thing spe­cific in Idaho or other stud­ies to sug­gest 5 per­cent is not a rea­son­able av­er­age,” Heb­don said.

The other fac­tor in de­ter­min­ing over­all mor­tal­ity is to de­ter­mine the rate at which wild fish are caught and re­leased. Idaho as­sumes wild fish are caught at about the same rate as hatch­ery fish.

“I can tell you we have a sub­stan­tial num­ber of hatch­ery fish in the en­vi­ron­ment, and we know the ma­jor­ity of Idaho an­glers are tar­get­ing hatch­ery fish,” Heb­don said. “You are go­ing to be able to find peo­ple in Idaho that say their catch of steel­head is pre­dom­i­nantly wild, but the vast ma­jor­ity of Idaho an­glers are tar­get­ing hatch­ery fish and the run is dom­i­nated nu­mer­i­cally by hatch­ery fish.”

ORE­GON STUDY

Some peo­ple point to analy­ses con­ducted by the Ore­gon Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife on the Deschutes River that showed wild fish are caught at a higher rate than hatch­ery fish, even though wild fish only ac­count for about a quar­ter of the over­all steel­head run there. In that work, a bi­ol­o­gist looked at the num­ber of hatch­ery and wild steel­head an­glers re­ported catch­ing on the Deschutes River and com­pared it to the num­ber of hatch­ery and wild fish that passed over an up­stream weir. It found more wild fish were caught than hatch­ery fish.

Heb­don said he is aware of the work but not aware that it is a pub­lished study or en­dorsed by the Ore­gon Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife as an of­fi­cial find­ing. He also said many steel­head from the Snake River pull into the Deschutes be­cause of its cold wa­ter and then ul­ti­mately leave. That could boost the num­ber of wild fish avail­able to an­glers, even though many of those fish exit the river be­fore pass­ing the weir.

“I don’t know how much cre­dence to give it,” he said.

Peo­ple like Don Chap­man, a re­tired fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist and for­mer Univer­sity of Idaho pro­fes­sor, are crit­i­cal of both the 5 per­cent mor­tal­ity rate es­ti­mate and the depart­ment’s be­lief that an­glers hook hatch­ery and wild fish at about the same rate.

“It’s been hyp­o­crit­i­cal as far as I’m con­cerned to use an out-of-basin 5 per­cent fig­ure and then will­fully ig­nore the Ore­gon Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife (work) on the Deschutes River. It has a mul­ti­year study that shows wild fish are much more ag­gres­sive in at­tack­ing lures and flies than are hatch­ery fish. Wild fish are ag­gres­sive, and that en­counter rate for hatch­ery fish is ir­rel­e­vant to wild fish.”

Chap­man also said the state doesn’t know how many times wild fish might be hooked in a sea­son. He would like the state to adopt a 10 per­cent catch-and-re­lease mor­tal­ity rate and adopt more re­stric­tions to pro­tect wild fish.

“I think we should ban­ish tre­ble hooks. I think we should ban­ish bait be­cause of catch-an­drelease mor­tal­ity in the mouth and tongue and I think it’s im­por­tant to keep fish in the wa­ter,” he said. “To me those kinds of things are nec­es­sary, and I think Fish and Game should be more will­ing to shut down a fish­ery im­me­di­ately and com­pletely when we see a ter­ri­ble run coming.”

RE­MOV­ING FISH

Idaho’s will­ing­ness to let an­glers briefly re­move wild fish from the wa­ter for pho­to­graphs is an­other stick­ing point with peo­ple wor­ried about catch-an­drelease mor­tal­ity. The state al­lows the prac­tice, so peo­ple can cap­ture mem­o­ries from their trips. Heb­don said stud­ies con­ducted by the depart­ment show brief ex­po­sure to air by wild fish is not a sig­nif­i­cant cause of mor­tal­ity. The state has done research on steel­head in the South Fork of the Clear­wa­ter River and on cut­throat trout in the South Fork of the Snake River that showed lift­ing fish from the wa­ter did not af­fect their re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess.

A re­cent study on the Bulk­ley River in British Columbia, Canada, had mixed re­sults that can be used by both camps in the de­bate. It found that about 5 per­cent of caugh­tand-re­leased steel­head died within three days of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Most per­ished from deep hook­ing or hook­ing in the tongue. The study con­tin­ued to track those fish and found that about 10 per­cent did not sur­vive over win­ter and about 15 per­cent died prior to spawn­ing.

It also showed that steel­head ex­posed to air fell back farther down river than steel­head that were re­leased without be­ing re­moved from the wa­ter. How­ever, within two weeks of re­lease the fish ex­posed to air had re­sumed their up­stream mi­gra­tion and were on par with fish that hadn’t been ex­posed to air.

“None of the an­glin­gre­lated vari­ables had any ap­par­ent long-term con­se­quences on the mi­gra­tion rate, or pres­pawn dis­tances to po­ten­tial spawn­ing sites,” the au­thors wrote.

They said that the study sug­gests an­glers should limit air ex­po­sure of steel­head to less than 10 sec­onds and be mind­ful of wa­ter tem­per­a­tures. Higher tem­per­a­tures lead to in­creased mor­tal­ity.

Idaho pro­po­nents of ban­ning re­moval of wild fish from the wa­ter point out the Bulk­ley is a north­ern river with much lower wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, es­pe­cially early in the steel­head sea­son. They say if 5 per­cent of steel­head there per­ish af­ter be­ing re­leased, the mor­tal­ity rate must be higher on the Snake River and its trib­u­taries.

The 10 per­cent over­win­ter, and 15 per­cent pres­pawn mor­tal­ity sounds an alarm from some Idaho an­glers and bi­ol­o­gists wor­ried about the ef­fects of catch and re­lease. How­ever, study au­thor Wil­liam Twardek, a doc­toral stu­dent at Car­leton Univer­sity in Ot­tawa, On­tario, said re­searchers don’t know what the over­win­ter and pres­pawn mor­tal­ity rate is for fish that aren’t caught and re­leased. He also said that they don’t know to what de­gree an­gling was the cause of mor­tal­ity, but said it weak­ens them.

“They’re not them­selves go­ing to kill the fish, but it doesn’t mean it won’t have sub­lethal im­pact,” Twardek said.

DIS­AGREE­MENT

LuVerne Gruss­ing, a board mem­ber of Idaho Rivers United and avid steel­head an­gler who lives near Spald­ing, said the groups in­volved in the po­ten­tial law­suit are not uni­fied in what they think could be ap­pro­pri­ate reme­dies.

“We don’t agree with some of our part­ners from the coastal ar­eas about po­ten­tial or pos­si­ble mit­i­ga­tion that could be done short of clos­ing the sea­son,” Gruss­ing said. “We cer­tainly think if they would just make changes to the reg­u­la­tions a lit­tle bit to make it ‘don’t take wild fish out of the wa­ter and use only sin­gle-bar­b­less hooks’ that would make a big dif­fer­ence in terms of po­ten­tial mor­tal­ity.

Many peo­ple be­lieve tre­ble hooks — a hook with three points on a sin­gle shank — and mul­ti­ple hooks on one lure, in­crease the chances of in­jury to fish and in­crease the time it takes to re­lease them.

“I can’t imag­ing that Fish and Game wouldn’t do that as a mit­i­ga­tion fac­tor if it were pro­posed to keep the sea­son open,” he said.

Fish and Game of­fi­cials re­jected a larger set of po­ten­tial ac­tions that in­cluded reg­u­la­tions that would re­quire sin­gle­bar­b­less hooks and for­bid re­mov­ing wild fish from the wa­ter, in failed set­tle­ment talks. Those mea­sures also in­cluded a ban on bait and fish­ing from boats.

Gruss­ing said Idaho Rivers United doesn’t sup­port a ban on fish­ing from boats.

“That is just not some­thing IRU ever did,” he said. “They would be op­posed to that.”

ERIC BARKER Lewis­ton Tri­bune

An an­gler re­leases a wild steel­head on the Clear­wa­ter River without re­mov­ing the fish from the wa­ter.

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