The Skagit River

The Skagit River in my home state of Washington probably needs little introduction. After all, even if you live on the other side of the world you’ve probably heard of Skagit casting and Skagit lines for Spey and switch rods. In the event that you’re still not familiar with the Skagit our good friends at Wikipedia offer a thorough description HERE.

The Skagit is a vast river system historically held in high acclaim among anglers as a destination fishery for wild steelhead. It wasn’t many decades ago that steelhead runs were plentiful throughout all rivers in this damp corner of the United States, but unfortunately the cumulative effects from overharvest, habitat loss and other environmental factors have not been kind to these fish. Wild Pacific Northwest steelhead have since been listed under the Endangered Species Act because their populations are either endangered or threatened.

While many Pacific Northwest rivers have greatly diminished runs of wild steelhead, the Skagit runs remain comparatively strong. That’s not to say that Skagit fish numbers aren’t down from historical peaks, but on its own the Skagit probably would not have been listed under the ESA.

Until 2010 a catch-and-release (C&R) season used to run through the end of April on the Skagit system. What used to be a wonderful time of year for anglers on the Skagit and it’s most notable tributary, the Sauk, is a thing of the past due to closures by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). The Osprey Steelhead News does a very good job of detailing this whole matter.

After reviewing the evidence used by WDFW to justify the closure it is the belief of the grassroots Occupy Skagit movement that the evidence is flawed; that a well-managed, catch-and-release (C&R) season on the Skagit would not be inconsistent with the recovery of its wild winter steelhead.

Rather than reguritate (poorly, I might add) the information, I am posting here a piece written by an Occupy Skagit member to answer the many questions posed by fellow steelhead anglers on a Northwest online bulletin board.

It’s pretty clear to those of us who fish that no fish ever benefited by being hooked and caught by an angler. Complete preservation, of fish and their habitat, is the perfect solution from a fish’s point of view. But Occupy Skagit (OS) is not about the fish’s point of view.

OS is about steelheaders who would rather fish than see their favorite river closed to fishing forevermore. Realistically, that is the present outlook simply because there is no plan to ever open the Skagit to fishing for wild steelhead again. OS is about developing such a plan, as soon as possible, so that anglers may fish the Skagit again in their lifetimes.

The concept that we must let the fish recover before we can fish for them again is a discussion based on false assumptions and unrealistic expectations. Wild Skagit steelhead are a population in no particular need of recovery. “What?” you say, “It’s consistently produced run sizes lower than the escapement goal.” But that’s not the whole story.

Wild Skagit steelhead are the most abundant in Puget Sound. Since 1978, the run size has averaged 7,822 fish, ranging from a low of around 2,600 to a high of 16,000. The spawning escapement has averaged 6,857 steelhead after harvest, both incidental and directed. As far as anyone can know for certain, this variation in population size is completely normal. There are good years, and there are bad years. Freshwater floods and droughts limit the out-migrating smolt population from year to year. The freshwater habitat has not really changed much in the last 30 years. Some parts have degraded further, and some parts have improved. On balance, it would be hard to quantify any significant change. And marine survival factors limit the percentage of smolts that survive to adulthood and return from the ocean each year. Given what we know about run sizes and escapement over a more than 30-year period, there is no logical reason to believe that wild Skagit steelhead runs will ever consistently average above the present spawning escapement floor value.

The escapement goal is an artifact of uncertainty. The aggregate model that escapement goals were developed from in the 1980s calculated a Skagit spawning escapement goal far above 20,000. Since that seemed impractable and unrealistic, biologists rather arbitrarily picked 10,000 as an escapement guideline. In the 1980s, when marine survival was higher than it is now, that value appeared realistic. As more data were collected and analyzed, it was apparent that the Maximum Sustained Yield / Maximum Sustained Harvest escapement goal would be much lower, slightly less than 4,000. That seems low for such a large river basin, so the co-managers settled on 6,000 as a buffered escapement floor for some interim period. The take-home message in this paragraph is that no relationship exists between the Skagit wild steelhead spawning escapement goal and the actual productivity and capacity of the Skagit River basin to produce steelhead. Please re-read the last sentence and be certain that you understand it.

The last paragraph means that the Skagit wild steelhead spawning escapement goal is arbitrary, and possibly capricious. It’s meaning is primarily make-believe then. This leads me to the question of for what purpose are Skagit steelhead managed? Is it strictly species preservation, like a petting zoo, except you can’t actually pet the animals? Or is the purpose to conserve the population for the mutual long-term benefit of the species as well as human social and economic benefits. If the purpose is the former, then the present course is the one to stay on. If the latter, then a change is required.

A reinstatement of the previous C&R season will require a petition from WDFW to the National Marine Fisheries Service for a permit that establishes basin-specific allowable impacts (as is currently being done with Puget Sound Chinook).

To bring attention to this matter Occupy Skagit is calling for as many anglers as possible to turn out on April 6th and cast hookless chunks of yarn into the waters of the Skagit and Sauk rivers. The plan is to meet at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport, WA at 9 AM. For more information  visit the Occupy Skagit Facebook Page:

Sometimes you have to dump a little tea into the harbor…



April 16th, 2009 – Last C&R season on the Sauk River