Earlier last month, The Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted to suspend the current steelhead fishing season in the state. The vote came because of a threatened lawsuit by a coalition of six conservation groups (Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater, The Conservation Angler, the Wild Fish Conservancy and the Snake River Waterkeeper). Currently, starting December 8th, Idaho anglers cannot fish for steelhead in Idaho-controlled waterways–even if catch and release.
The groups threatening legal action base their potential lawsuit on the fact that Idaho hasn’t yet secured the necessary permit and plan to allow fishing for federally protected species (wild steelhead). Additionally, the coalition wanted to see adequate protections, given alarmingly low wild steelhead returns this year. Idaho sought approval from NOAA’s fisheries division when the State’s permit expired in 2010, but NOAA had not yet approved Idaho’s permit, according to Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore. Steelhead, a threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act, are subject to stricter federal regulation. Idaho is now actively working with NOAA to gain a permit and re-open the season in the spring, but the season is set to close December 7th.
The commission’s decision has brought on significant and warranted opposition. Many of Idaho’s communities rely on the recreational fishing economy from steelhead fishing. For steelhead guides, the closure is resulting in cancelled dates that anglers often reserve months in advance. Hotels and other local businesses are also feeling the pressure of the closure with cancellations and comparatively high vacancy from previous years.
Idaho Rivers United, one of the original parties that threatened the lawsuit, has no withdrawn from the coalition. Last Friday IRU released this statement: “Their decision hurt riverside towns, and many people we care about — people who are on a larger team to restore salmon and steelhead in Idaho. We regret that. We have many friends in those communities — anglers, fishing guides, citizens and business owners, who have worked with us for many years on salmon and steelhead recovery. It is unfair to punish rural communities that depend on fishery-based economies. Let’s fix this, quickly.”
IRU’s reversal signals their opposition to the closure and the impact on local communities, but they still believe steelhead are still on a path towards extinction. This past year, Idaho experienced its worst wild steelhead returns since 1996. The Native Fish Society highlighted this in a statement regarding the closure: “Native Fish Society is disappointed to see the fishery close, but it needed to close”. Wild Steelhead numbers on the Snake River are dangerously low, according to a Native Fish Society graph.
Responsible fishing can be one of the most powerful tools for protecting threatened fish species. However, clearly responsible fishing alone has not done much to help ailing steelhead runs. It is unfortunate that the Idaho steelhead season closed, but sometimes drastic measures are needed to cause significant change. Right now, the fate of Idaho’s steelhead fishing season is unclear, because the determining factor behind the Commission’s closure decision was the threat of lawsuit. Hopefully, the coalition and Idaho can find common ground to protect steelhead and local communities alike.
If you want to learn more about the closure, check out these articles: Everything You Wanted to Know About Idaho’s Steelhead Closure and Salmon River Businesses Brace for Impact of Suspended Steelhead Season.