This year has been crazy, to say the least. For wild steelhead, this past year began with the hope of Congressman Simpson’s Salmon and Energy Concept that would breach the four Lower Snake River Dams. But it’s ending with dire warning signs of historic low steelhead runs. Last week, the Wild Steelhead Coalition unveiled their newest campaign–Wild Steelhead: Now or Never. The three part series goes into great detail just how bad things have become for wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, specifically, and what is needed to move forward.

“Across their home waters, the crisis facing wild steelhead became undeniable this year. Finally stopping the loss of these incredible fish is going to take all of us working together,” said Wild Steelhead Coalition Board Member Ed Sozinho. “With that in mind, we set out to make Wild Steelhead: Now or Never a resource, a line in the sand, and a rallying cry for steelhead anglers in the 21st Century. We see viable paths forward for restoration and recovery, but there is no time left to wait for someone else to do the work or demand the changes needed. Steelheaders are a dedicated, passionate community of anglers. We have a responsibility, and a profound opportunity, to lead the charge to save our wild fish and free-flowing watersheds. To do so, we need to shift our narrative of what it means to be a steelheader. Today all of us need to become conservationists and advocates just as much as we are anglers.”

Wild Steelhead on the Brink

Chapter one takes a step back to better understand the current condition of wild steelhead. If you’ve remotely followed this species or fly fishing social media, you probably have a pretty good grasp on just how bad things are. But maybe some don’t realize the degree or seriousness of today’s levels. “Let’s be brutally honest: The state of wild steelhead in 2021 is terrifying. Anyone who says otherwise is intentionally avoiding the truth or is not paying attention.”

The Wild Steelhead Coalition was founded 20 years ago when many Puget Sound steelhead runs collapsed. Today, they’re looking inwards and asking some tough questions: “How do we focus our advocacy to ensure wild steelhead can survive, and even thrive, in the future? How do we make sure that our children and grandchildren have a chance to encounter one of these amazing fish in their local rivers? The status quo is failing us, but how do we make the massive changes needed on the scale and timeline required?”

Restoration and Recovery

Chapter two details the drivers for declining wild steelhead populations and outlines the necessary steps for their very possible recovery. The “Four Hs,” harvest, habitat, hatcheries, and hydropower, have historically been the general reason for dwindling runs. However, another “H” s now being added to this educational concept: Heat attributable to climate change. A warming climate has dire conditions for anadromous species both up-river and in marine environments.

“This growing threat adds great urgency to our work to restore habitat, remove migration barriers, reduce harvest, and protect clean, cold water. The diversity of wild steelhead gives them the best opportunity to adapt and survive in less stable systems. It is a crucial reason to prioritize these resilient wild fish and provide the habitat, connectivity, and protections they need.”

Recovery seems daunting, but if you give these fish half a chance they will come back. Look at the previously dammed Elwha River, which (since the largest dam removal project in the world)  may support the largest population of wild summer steelhead on the Washington coast.

With this evidence, breaching the four Lower Snake River Dams seems all the more effective and immediately necessary. But much like the previous chapter, recovery can’t just be large, physical, government-run projects, anglers will be desperately needed to drive the change. “A steelheader’s first priority must always be how many fish reach the spawning gravel, not how many we catch in the short-term.” That concept brings us to the final chapter.

New Steelheaders for the 21st Century

Chapter three describes the changing climate of chasing wild steelhead. “In the 21st Century, being a steelheader must mean being an advocate and a conservationist as much as being an angler. It must mean prioritizing ecological restoration, sacrificing for long-term recovery, and rebuilding by giving back more than we take. Above all, it must mean working together with other anglers, advocates, tribes, and conservationists to hold agencies, managers, and politicians accountable for our clean, cold, free-flowing rivers and wild fish on a scale that’s never been done before.”

There is no silver-bullet for steelhead recovery. Sure, suitable habitat and favorable environmental conditions are essential, but when runs are as low as today’s every fish matters–thus, every potential encounter with wild steelhead and anglers becomes even more impactful. Whether that’s switching to barbless hooks, committing to leaving fish in the water, supporting businesses and organizations that promote conservation, submitting public comment to fish and game agencies, or just not fishing when runs look dismal, that’s what it’ll take now.

“Together, let’s shift what it means to be steelheaders in the 21st Century and hold our community to a higher standard. Let’s make giving back to our rivers and restoring wild fish an integral part of who we are as anglers. The truth is that raising funds for conservation, showing up at commission meetings, contacting managers, and calling legislators to insist on change is the work the fish need. It is how we’ll get rivers set aside for wild fish, dam removals, selective commercial fisheries, and habitat restoration. These are actions to be proud of and something we should all be celebrating and encouraging.”

Check out the Wild Steelhead Coalition website and Instagram to stay engaged on protecting and restoring these storied fish.

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