Government Shutdown Threatens Idaho Steelhead Season

The federal fisheries biologists who were working to keep Idaho’s steelhead season open have been deemed “non-essential” by the Trump administration and were furloughed. ICL writes to Gov. Little in the hope that he agrees with us: Idaho families that depend on healthy runs of salmon and steelhead are essential. These people matter, their jobs matter and these fish matter.

1/11/19

Dear Governor Little,

Since 1973, the Idaho Conservation League has been Idaho’s leading voice for clean water, clean air, wildlands and wildlife — values that are the foundation for Idaho’s extraordinary quality of life.  As Idaho’s largest state-based conservation organization, we represent over 25,000 supporters, many of whom have a deep personal interest in Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs.

As you know, Idaho’s salmon and steelhead populations are in serious decline and our wild runs are teetering on the brink of extinction. The situation is so dire that legal wrangling almost cost Idahoans the ability to have a hatchery-based steelhead fishing season this year. Had the season been cancelled, many small businesses, indeed entire communities, that depend on steelhead fishing to float their economies would have suffered.

The season was only saved because the State and concerned parties were able hammer out an agreement in which everybody compromised. Key to reaching agreement was the fact that Idaho would secure the necessary permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) no later than March 15, 2019.

The federal government shutdown now threatens Idaho’s ability to keep the hatchery-based steelhead season open.

The Sustainable Fisheries Division of NMFS is the entity tasked to process Idaho’s permit, on which the steelhead season will depend. Calls to Ryan Wulff, who heads the Sustainable Fisheries Division in the West Coast Region, have confirmed that the personnel working on this permit have been furloughed — a result of the current federal government shutdown furloughing all “non-essential employees.” Idaho’s permit application is sitting on a desk in an empty office.

While the Trump administration may view the fishery biologists working to protect Idaho’s steelhead — and our steelhead fishing season — as non-essential employees, we sure don’t.  Ensuring that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is able to administer a steelhead fishing season that allows hatchery-based steelhead to be harvested while not harming our wild runs is absolutely essential to many Idaho communities and families.

We are writing to you in the hopes that you agree with us: Idaho families that depend on healthy runs of salmon and steelhead are essential. These people matter, their jobs matter and these fish matter.

As IDFG underscored in its most recent Steelhead Plan, “Abundance, survival and productivity of SR [Snake River] steelhead populations have declined since FCRPS [Federal Columbia River Power System] development in the 1970’s”[1] and that “population dynamics of SR steelhead are driven primarily by out-of-basin factors, especially the FCRPS [Federal Columbia River Power System]…”[2]

Indeed, as IDFG notes, the “smolt-to-adult” returns of Idaho’s wild steelhead — that is to say, the rate that young Idaho fish successfully migrate to the ocean and return to Idaho as adults — only averages 1.6%.[3] This low rate of return accounts for the precipitous population declines in both wild and hatchery steelhead. Idaho has made significant efforts to protect and improve key steelhead spawning and rearing habitat within Idaho. Alas, most of this habitat sits vacant — with no fish returning to use it.

Idaho outfitters have taken steps to minimize harm to incidentally caught wild fish. While Idaho anglers targeting hatchery fish do incidentally catch wild fish, and this does result in the death of approximately 3.2% of returning adult wild steelhead,[4] this incidental mortality is puny in comparison to the lethality of the federal dams downstream. According to IDFG, 98.6% of Idaho’s steelhead die from causes downstream. Of the 1.6% that return to Idaho, 3.2% of these may die from incidental interactions with anglers.

Numbers make these statistics a little more real.

Assume that 1,000,000 juvenile fish swim out of Idaho — only 16,000 survive and return to Idaho as adults. This means that downstream perils kill 984,000 wild Idaho Snake River steelhead. In contrast, Idaho anglers may cause the death of 512 wild Idaho steelhead.

While the loss of any wild Idaho steelhead is a terrible thing, the harm caused by Idaho anglers does not seem to compare to the catastrophic mortality inflicted on our fish as they migrate to and from the Pacific — with no current to push them to the sea, through slack water reservoirs full of warm water, over and through 8 federal dams and then back again in reverse as adults. With downstream causes killing 98.6% of our steelhead, Idaho needs action.

The government shutdown is threatening Idaho steelhead and the Idaho families whose livelihoods depend on them. We ask that you take action and ask the Trump administration to prioritize these families and prioritize the money needed to get the NMFS fishery biologists back to work.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about our letter, or if I can be of any service.

Sincerely,

Justin Hayes
Program Director

[1] Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Snake River Steelhead Fisheries Plan. 2010/2018 at Page 19.
[2] Ibid., Page 19.
[3] Ibid, Page 19
[4] Ibid., Page 15

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