For this installment of “Organization of the Month,” we chatted with The Wild Steelhead Coalition’s co-founder and board member, Rich Simms, to discuss all the important work they are doing for wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. No matter which way you break it down, steelhead are in severe trouble; thankfully, Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC) is working to preserve the remaining runs of wild steelhead and restore the others back to their former glories. Follow along for more!
Flylords: Tell us a little bit about Wild Steelhead Coalition’s inception.
WSC: The Wild Steelhead Coalition was founded in 2001, when a group of conservation-minded Washington anglers came together concerned about the recent closure of the Spring catch and release steelhead season on North Puget Sound rivers such as the Skagit, Stillaguamish, and Skykomish due to low wild steelhead return numbers. These anglers were questioning what got us to this point. We also saw a need for a conservation group with a sole focus on the recovery and protection of wild steelhead. We are an all-volunteer grassroots organization.
Flylords: Where does WSC do most of their work?
WSC: We were founded in Puget Sound, so by default most of work was originally focused within Washington State. It has since expanded into Oregon, California, Idaho and even lower British Columbia where the collapse of the Thompson River wild steelhead population is a pressing concern. Our mission includes advocacy, partnerships, and projects across the entire native range of steelhead. WSC is committed to “increasing the return of wild steelhead to the rivers and waters of the West Coast.”
Flylords: Just how imperiled are wild steelhead?
WSC: It’s a tough situation. Demand for the wild steelhead angling experience, especially among fly anglers, has substantially increased while opportunities and fish numbers have decreased. Wild steelhead are listed as Threatened or Endangered in 11 of 15 Distinct Population Segments (DPS) within their United States historic range. The other four DPS are currently in decline and could also be listed in the future unless the runs turn around. The Columbia and Snake River watershed has experienced disturbingly low returns during recent years, especially for Clearwater “B” run steelhead. The season on the Clearwater was closed this Fall because of low fish counts. Here in Washington, the Chehalis and Willapa basin seasons were closed for the first time due low projected returns of wild winter steelhead. The Skagit River, after opening the past two years, was also closed again this year due to low project returns of wild steelhead. These closures put increased pressure on the Olympic Peninsula rivers, where wild steelhead were also projected for low returns numbers. Unfortunately, despite their popularity, the wild steelhead populations of many of the iconic watersheds of the Olympic Peninsula have been on a long downward trend and some have missed their required number of spawning fish during the last decade. to put it in stark terms, If we don’t change these grim trajectories soon, wild steelhead and our fishing opportunities could will be gone or severely curtailed.
Flylords: Care to give us a brief history on what caused this dramatic decline of wild steelhead?
WSC: It always boils down to the impacts of what fishery advocates call the “4H’s”: Habitat loss, Hydropower Dams, excessive Harvest, and poor use of Hatcheries. Now we can also add a fifth “H”, Heat, to refer to climate change and its impacts on cold water resources, changing rain regimes and snowpack, and ocean temperature and acidification in the North Pacific. But in the middle of it all is us: Humans, and the choices we have made, continue to make, and the misguided resource management policies which have led to the decline of this iconic game fish. And each generation’s perspective on what abundance was, and could be, keeps slipping as we allow the baseline of wild steelhead numbers to continuously shift down.
Flylords: WSC is a 501c (3) organization focused on restoring the West Coast’s wild steelhead—what are some of the major ways WSC seeks to improve wild steelhead runs?
WSC: The first thing the WSC focused on was to eliminate the intentional sport harvest of wild steelhead, which we accomplished in Washington. In fact, to protect wild steelhead from incidental mortality, it is actually illegal to lift them out of the water in Washington, a regulation and practice we first proposed. What you soon learn in the world of steelhead conservation is that policy changes occur very slowly. The WSC was instrumental in helping to create the system of Wild Steelhead Gene Banks in Washington. These are rivers with exceptional remaining habitat that are managed solely for wild steelhead and their protection for the future. We also gained stronger laws and protections for resident rainbow trout populations in rivers, which research has documented is a resident life history of wild steelhead and actually will spawn successfully with adult steelhead. Representatives of the WSC board are participants and members on state steelhead fishery and recovery advisory boards.
We also take the “coalition” part of our name seriously by working with and establishing collaborations on behalf of wild steelhead with other conservation groups, anglers, government agencies, scientists, and tribes whenever possible. In the end, the WSC has worked to become leaders in the angling and conservation communities to restore wild steelhead and the watersheds they depend. We are anglers who want to keep the tradition of wild steelhead fishing alive for future generations, but our work also benefits the other native fish species that share steelhead waters and the communities that depend on abundant fish returns.
Flylords: Obviously, effective steelhead recovery has so many moving parts, and dam removal is often the marquee topic. What are some of the less known, but equally important, steelhead recovery efforts?
WSC: Protecting habitat is huge, and we need to do everything we can to protect what remains and repair what has been lost. We need a better handle on the impacts of hatchery programs on wild steelhead recovery and must require hatchery management practices based on the best available science. Education of steelhead anglers is key, because in the end, we are ones who really care about wild steelhead and our home waters and will advocate for a future with wild steelhead.
Steelhead, unfortunately, can be overshadowed by other species in the eyes of the general public since they don’t have the “panda effect” of other charismatic species like the orcas of Puget Sound, for example. Steelhead were never really a “numbers” fish such as salmon, so they didn’t drive the canneries or loom large in the public’s understanding of the Pacific Northwest’s watersheds. But those of us who know these fish grow to love them and their rivers, and we must do what we can to protect and restore their numbers before it is too late.
Wild Steelhead are critical to the rivers of the Pacific Rim, where they evolved incredibly diverse life histories and established themselves in an amazing variety of habitat types, including the rivers of the coast, desert, and deep into the mountains of Idaho. Among native, anadromous fish they are often the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
Flylords: Are there any pockets or specific runs that are showing real promise?
WSC: Yes, there are places showing promise. Some of Wild Steelhead Gene Bank rivers are showing recovery, or at least population stability, and providing viable fishing opportunities. The Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River is showing huge promise after dam removal. There, wild summer steelhead are arising from the resident rainbow trout population that had been trapped behind the dams for over a century. These amazing fish are utilizing restored historic habitat in the upper Elwha backcountry. Our friends John McMillan and Shane Anderson recently released a great short film called “Rising from the Ashes” that highlights this great news. The Eel River in California, with the absence of hatchery fish and healing habitat, has reestablished itself from the abyss of previous decades of near complete collapse. The Skagit River is showing encouraging signs of population increase. Places like the Rogue River and the famous North Umpqua benefit from strong protections, dam removals and good habitat, and are showing stability and even some increase in wild steelhead numbers. Some small river systems in Washington have been creeping back slowly in recent years. There is even talk of providing wild steelhead fisheries again in some of these places. We know what it takes to recover wild steelhead runs. It can happen if we are patient, do the right things, and protect what we have.
Flylords: Tell us about some recent WSC initiatives or campaigns.
WSC: Currently our campaigns include the prevention of the proposed dam on the upper Chehalis River and calling for habitat restoration throughout that important watershed; Preventing the continuation of open net pen fish farms in the public waters of Puget Sound; Our work on the Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group, which will dictate recovery and fishing opportunities in Puget Sound for years to come; A habitat restoration project in the Skagit River basin; Producing a new “State of Steelhead” report; and, WSC is always working to bring attention and education about wild steelhead recovery further into the public view and among anglers. Just to name a few. There is plenty of work to be done throughout the native range of wild steelhead, and we are always looking for ways to support local stakeholders and communities to advocate on behalf of their home watersheds and fisheries.
Flylords: How can everyday anglers get involved with WSC and help advocate for wild steelhead?
WSC: Anglers can connect with WSC through our social media presence on Instagram and Facebook. They can sign up for our mailing lists to receive our digital newsletter, The Adipose, and get opportunities to participate in events or submit comments to resource managers. We work hard to educate anglers and these resources are a great place to gain an understanding of the problems, challenges and issues facing wild steelhead recovery. We encourage anglers, no matter what type of gear they use or where they like to fish for steelhead, to take the time to think about their own impact on the resource and not point our fingers at one another.
Anglers need to be in this together. Joining together is the only way we will force managing agencies to change their focus towards wild steelhead recovery. This means we need to take time from our busy schedules to submit letters to leaders, participate in public hearings, and demand that habitat is protected and restored.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that as a grassroots, non-profit organization largely driven by volunteers, the Wild Steelhead Coalition depends on donations, funding through grant giving foundations and partnerships with organizations within the angling and conservation worlds to support our work. We are a lean organization and we direct the vast majority of these resources directly towards wild steelhead advocacy. If you have it within your means, or are interested in partnering with the WSC, we always appreciate that financial support. It makes our work possible. In the end, we want to inspire and create a community of anglers to become advocates for the future of wild steelhead and their beautiful rivers.
Another way you can help is by purchasing one of these T-shirts for a fundraiser of ours through this link!