Idaho received its long-awaited steelhead fishery permit from the federal government Friday, ending months of uncertainty over the future of the ongoing steelhead season.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approved the state’s Steelhead Fishery Management Evaluation Plan and issued the Idaho Department of Fish and Game an incidental take permit that allows a small percentage of protected wild steelhead to be harmed during fishing for hatchery steelhead.
The approval came the same day a tri-party, negotiated agreement forged late last fall that saved the steelhead season was set to expire.
“It’s obviously a big relief,” said Roy Akins, a steelhead outfitter at Riggins and chairman of the Riggins chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance. “It’s hard to market the business if you don’t know for certain you can take people fishing.”
The saga began in October when a coalition of conservation groups sent Idaho fisheries officials a 60-day notice of intent to sue. The groups, which included the Conservation Angler, Wild Fish Conservancy, Wild Salmon Rivers, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Waterkeeper, said the return of wild steelhead – listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act – was so low this fall that fishing should be curtailed or extraordinary measures should be adopted to further protect the wild fish.
Idaho’s steelhead fishery targets hatchery fish. However, anglers often catch wild steelhead, which they are required to release unharmed. Even so, some of the wild fish die upon release. To ensure mortality rates stay low among wild fish, the state is required to have an approved steelhead plan and incidental take permit.
The groups had legal leverage because the state’s permit had expired in 2010. Although the department applied for a new permit the same year, NOAA officials were unable to process the application because of a backlog of work. But the federal agency notified Fish and Game officials that it would not intervene if the state continued to allow steelhead fishing under the terms of its expired permit.
Fish and Game officials did just that, and annual steelhead seasons proceeded without incident until the threatened lawsuit.
Department officials determined they were certain to lose a court battle without a valid permit. Negotiations between the state and conservation groups initially failed. The groups asked the state to adopt restrictions, such as banning the use of bait and fishing from boats, among other things, designed to protect wild fish. Department officials and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission said such measures were not needed and might set precedent if they were adopted.
With little legal room to maneuver, the commission voted to shut down the season Dec. 8, 60 days after the notice of intent to sue was received.
Anglers, outfitters and guides, and businesses that depend on income from steelhead protested. They also organized and formed the Idaho River Community Alliance. The newly formed organization was able to jump-start stalled negotiations between the department and the conservation groups, which paved the way to a settlement.
Under the terms of the agreement, the conservation groups agreed to delay litigation; the state agreed to close sections of the Salmon River and the South Fork of the Clearwater River where high numbers of wild fish concentrate; and fishing guides agreed to adopt voluntary measures designed to protect wild steelhead.
When the agreement was signed, NOAA officials believed they would easily finish processing the state’s permit by Friday’s deadline. But a 35-day partial government shutdown idled federal permit writers and nearly caused them to miss the deadline. The permit was signed Thursday and delivered to Idaho fisheries officials Friday.
“During this difficult period, we greatly appreciate the patience of anglers, outfitters and guides, and other businesses and communities that rely on steelhead fishing,” said Jim Fredericks, Fish and Game’s fisheries bureau chief at Boise. “While it was NOAA’s inaction that created this situation, we appreciate NOAA staff working diligently to expedite this permit in a valid and legally defensible way and completing it when promised, despite a federal government shutdown that lasted more than a month.”
With the agreement in hand, Idaho’s ongoing steelhead season will remain open and fishing is now allowed in previously closed river sections. The guides are no longer obligated to implement the voluntary measures. However, Akins said some guides may continue the practices.
“I heard lot of guides saying, ‘We like to fish with these single-siwash hooks,’ so I think some guides will be sticking with some of the extra methods to protect wild fish.”
Toby Wyatt, a Clarkston-based outfitter and chairman of the Clearwater Chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance, said the threatened closure was beneficial because it forced the fishing community to organize.
“We have groups formed and we have alliances formed and we are a little more organized for future incidents,” he said.
Despite the anxiety caused by the nearly shuttered season, he has no hard feelings.
“I’m not upset at anything or anyone,” he said. “I understand everybody cares about these fish and nobody wants them to go extinct. We all need to realize how precious they are, and we all need to work together to conserve the species.”
David Moskowitz, executive director of the Conservation Angler, had a similar take but said his group and the others that threatened litigation are carefully reviewing the permit and supporting documents.
“We were grateful to be able to find some common ground with the Idaho River Community Alliance and I think while it’s been a somewhat painful process, in a lot of ways the attention focussed on the state of Idaho’s fisheries is really good. I would say that this issue is not going away.”
He said the forecast for next fall’s steelhead run is not promising, and that fewer than 1,000 wild B-run steelhead may return to Idaho.
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