Fisheries managers are considering a plan to reopen the popular wild winter steelhead fishery on the Skagit River.
Anglers have been unable to fish for wild steelhead on the Skagit River since 2010, when the winter catch-and-release fishery was closed because of low numbers of the threatened fish species returning to area rivers.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries is reviewing a steelhead management plan submitted to the federal agency in November by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife and area tribes.
The plan would allow fishing for steelhead on the Skagit River while continuing to restrict steelhead fishing in other parts of Puget Sound.
Puget Sound steelhead were listed as threatened in 2007 under the federal Endangered Species Act. Habitat loss is the main threat to the species, according to the listing.
About 40 percent of Puget Sound steelhead return to the Skagit River to spawn during the winter, according to the plan.
The number of fish returning to the Skagit River has grown from a low of about 2,500 in 2009 to an average of 8,600 in recent years. That’s more than the average number of fish returning to the river in the years prior to the 2007 listing of the species, according to the plan.
In the plan, Fish & Wildlife and the Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish and Upper Skagit tribes propose allowing a tribal net fishery in the Skagit River between Dec. 1 and April 15, and a recreational fishery between a date to be determined in February and April 30.
Details such as whether the fish caught can be kept would be decided each year based on fish returns.
The state and tribes propose allowing fishing for five years while monitoring the species.
Fishing advocates, fishing-related businesses and communities that benefit from fisheries-related tourism are calling on NOAA to make a prompt review of the plan.
Trout Unlimited and its Wild Steelheaders United program sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries on June 1 requesting that the review of the plan move along fast enough that the fishery might be reopened for winter 2018.
Within the state, officials and three businesses from Concrete, representatives from nearby Darrington and a dozen other cities signed in support of the letter.
Others from Pacific Northwest states, Colorado, Texas, East Coast states from Vermont to Florida, and one Canadian business also signed.
“The businesses who signed on from the East Coast and Canada have an interest in this fishery because it is relatively rare. There are few rivers on the Pacific coast that host as many wild steelhead, and the Skagit historically had some of the largest fish,” said Nick Chambers, Wild Steelhead Initiative organizer for Trout Unlimited.
“Steelhead anglers are more than willing to travel long distances to pursue their favorite fish, and the high quality wild winter fishery on the Skagit used to attract anglers from around the country and even the world,” he said.
The fishery was also important economically to the communities along the river and in the Puget Sound region.
“I will always support any opportunity to open a fishery that brings anglers into the upper valley, especially Concrete,” said Concrete Mayor Jason Miller, who signed the letter with approval from the Town Council. “It is an important — even crucial — component of our economic recovery.”
While NOAA reviews the proposed five-year plan, state and tribal co-managers continue working toward long-term management plans for Puget Sound steelhead.
Fish & Wildlife organized a Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group, which has been meeting monthly since March.
The group was set up to address longstanding conflicts over steelhead management in the region and to make recommendations for fish management to the state Fish & Wildlife Commission.
The goal is to have a draft management proposal ready by the end of the year that will outline how to conserve and restore wild steelhead, allow fishing and recognize the economic significance of the fishery to rural communities such as Concrete.