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Steelhead bag limit reduced to one, conservationists say change needs to happen now

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Posted at 12:23 PM, Sep 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-06 08:50:36-04

IDAHO — Steelhead fishing season opened Friday, September 3 on the Salmon, Clearwater, and Snake Rivers, but after recent changes made by Idaho Fish and Game, you're only allowed one steelhead per day.

IDFG tracked one of the lowest returns of steelhead past the Bonneville Dam since they started recording.

"It is pretty clear that we will never see a recovery of our species without drastic changes to the system," Garret Visser, Conservation Program Coordinator for the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said. "We have been fighting for this for 50 years and spent $18 billion and really have nothing to show for it here today."

Steelhead is on the endangered species list so anglers in Idaho are only able to fish for steelhead because of hatchery fish. This year was the sixth-lowest return and last year was the second-lowest return since they started recording in 1980.

"We're just seeing this constant, bottom-of-the-barrel returns year after year here, and so it is pretty obvious when you are looking at next steps that we need some pretty drastic action if we want to continue to have these fish around in Idaho," Visser said.

The Idaho Wildlife Federation says more needs to be done to make sure IDFG and anglers aren't put in this position every year where there's barely enough fish to have a season.

"Fifty years ago, we were promised to have robust populations of hatchery fish and now we are barely able to justify a season because of the reduced numbers of hatchery fish despite sending millions and millions of smolt down the river every single year," Visser said.

If a season shutdown happens, as it did on the Clearwater in 2019, it would have devastating economic impacts on our local communities.

"That year brought an estimated loss of about 8 and half-million dollars a month to the Clearwater region alone,” Visser said.

During the Commission meeting where IDFG set the reduced bad limit, IDFG says, however, these populations naturally fluctuate.

"Biologically, steelhead is a fairly resilient creature, and they have multiple overlapping age classes," said IDFG Fisheries Bureau Chief Lance Hebdon during the meeting. "One year of down returns is not super concerning, but if we start seeing consistently low returns, then we will start taking a solid look at it."

IWF says we should not be losing this many fish after spending billions on recovery efforts.

"Once every fish gets to the Lower Granite Dam, that source of mortality through eight dams because Idaho fish go through four on the Snake, four on the Columbia. That is 50 percent of the total that make it to the Lower Granite Dam are wiped out before they even get to the ocean as smolt," Visser said.

This is a very complex and controversial issue, but IWF and other conservationists say if change doesn't happen now, there won't be any steelhead in Idaho's rivers for much longer.

"We need to channel our concerns to those federal agencies that are responsible for managing the Columbia River and the Snake River systems as a whole and also the members of Congress in the northwest that can actually do something and implement these changes in a way that can reverse the trends," Visser said.

"We are really channeling our energy to members of Congress saying that, 'Hey, this is part of Idaho and the northwest culture and it is a part of our economic livelihood and this is something we really care about,'" he added. "They need to hear that."