The Wild Steelhead Coalition’s Call to Arms

Steelhead

“As fish runs have fallen year after year, we all crowd onto the few rivers that still remain open and pointlessly argue online about who is to blame for the situation. The baseline has kept shifting downward until today when we have reached an undeniable inflection point where hype has finally run up against heartbreaking, ruthless numbers.”
        Wild Steelhead Now or Never, Chapter 1

2021 was not a good year for wild steelhead or for steelhead anglers. Across most of their native range, in places like the North Umpqua, Skeena, Thompson and other fabled watersheds in Oregon and Washington, the numbers of returning wild steelhead are the worst in recorded history. Something needs to change.

The story of steelhead and how those heartbreaking numbers came to be is neither a simple nor easy one to tell. Let’s just say it’s VERY complicated. That hasn’t kept the Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC) from trying.

The Wild Steelhead Coalition’s has launched a new multi-media campaign called “Wild Steelhead Now or Never” to educate steelheaders about the plight of wild steelhead and empower all steelheaders to become wild steelhead champions.

“Throughout my life, I have seen the incredible lengths anglers will go to catch wild steelhead,” said WSC co-founder and board member Rich Simms. “We willingly endure miserable conditions, invest thousands of dollars, and spend countless days on the water in the hopes of connecting with these special fish. To ensure the future of wild steelhead fishing, all anglers need to channel the same level of passion, perseverance, and resources into saving these fish as we do in chasing them.”

This article briefly summarizes the Wild Steelhead Now or Never story. We encourage you to read the full story about this celebrated fish and the need to conserve their populations on the Wild Steelhead Coalition’s website.

A look back

With nearly 20 years under their belt, the Wild Steelhead Coalition took a look back and didn’t like what they saw. Over the years fewer and fewer wild steelhead were returning to their home waters. Paradoxically, the enthusiasm for fishing for these iconic fish has increased. Anglers seeking fish have been crowding into fewer productive waters degrading the fishing experience that many crave. Add in human impacts like hatcheries, dams and pollution with environmental impacts from climate change, and the outlook is disturbing. WSC remarked:

The cognitive dissonance of being a steelheader today is painful because the balance between reverence and sorrow is real. Wild steelhead and their home waters are worthy of every ounce of devotion, but we are losing them as generations of overexploitation, habitat degradation, dam building, and irresponsible management slam into a rapidly changing climate.

Beginning with Chapter 1, “Wild Steelhead on the Brink,” WSC reflected on the lessons learned.

We’ve always taken the ‘coalition’ part of our name seriously, so we did what we always do: We reached out to the steelhead conservation community and asked them these same questions.

As they questioned, probed and analyzed, WSC members found a common thread binding their coalition together. It was more than the fishing that bound them together; fighting to protect their home water was also essential.

WSC learned those steelheaders were never content to let problems fester and get worse. They understood their responsibility to act if they wanted to see wild steelhead in the future. “Most importantly, they didn’t wait to act. Staying silent or leaving the problem to someone else simply wasn’t an option,” according to WSC.

Repairing the damage

WSC’s second chapter in the Now or Never story, Restoration and Recovery, explains the factors that led to the current situation.

For all of the damage done to these fish and their home rivers, it is remarkable that we have any wild steelhead returning at all. Each wild fish is proof of the species’ astounding resilience, diversity, and adaptability. As anglers and conservationists, we need to build on their time-tested will to survive and let it inspire our fight for their future and home waters.

Restoration and Recovery is a comprehensive look at the things that impact wild steelhead populations. It’s a primer on the challenges facing the wild steelhead fishery.

For over 150 years, immense changes to the watersheds and landscapes of steelhead country have devastated the functioning, interwoven ecosystems required for wild steelhead, and wild salmon, to thrive. Dams, logging, land development, pollution, hatcheries, canneries, overexploitation, and the warming climate have all taken their toll. These devastating impacts compound and reinforce one another and the damages continue to accumulate today. The factors combine differently in every watershed, but no wild steelhead river has escaped their impacts.

The Now or Never website gives examples of success from dam removal, responsible management and habitat restoration. It points out that there is good work being done and provides examples to help define a path forward.

Wild steelhead need complex habitat, cold water, and connected ecosystems to thrive. Our task as steelheaders in the 21st Century is to restore watersheds and protect the remaining fish. We have great faith in the diversity of wild steelhead and functioning ecosystems. If we work together to rebuild what they need, then sustainable fisheries will follow.

But what has been done so far needs to be “more ambitious, comprehensive, and widespread,” according to the website.

Where do we go from here?

“We are at a vital inflection point for the future of wild steelhead,” said Greg Topf, WSC Board Chair. “If we act now, we have the opportunity to reverse decades of decline and chart a bright future for wild steelhead and angling. However, if the status quo remains, populations will continue to decline, more rivers will close fishing, and the future of steelheading will be in serious jeopardy.”

The last leg of the Now or Never three-part journey, New Steelheaders for the 21st Century, is perhaps the most important. This is the call to action where the rubber meets the road. Now is the time to quit complaining from behind a keyboard and go out and make a difference. WSC states, “Fundamentally, every one of us needs to be asking ourselves and our fellow anglers: What are you doing to help save these fish and rivers?”

You will find profiles of steelhead anglers, including MFCN Network Policy Council Member Bob Rees, who are stepping up and putting their knowledge, expertise and notoriety on the line.

The WSC has laid the cards on the table with Now or Never. They make no bones about the fact that it needs to be the anglers who show leadership on steelhead conservation. Those anglers are going to have to fight harder than ever before for wild steelhead or they will be lost forever. The WSC website states:

The Wild Steelhead Coalition is committed to setting a new ethical standard around steelhead angling. One that changes how the industry and anglers speak, think and work on behalf of our last wild fish and their home waters. We are going to build a new army of wild steelhead anglers and give them the tools they need to heal our shared watersheds and restore our wild fisheries.

In the coming months, WSC will provide more and ways to help save wild steelhead. Sign up to receive email updates and follow WSC on Facebook and Instagram.

Steelhead photo via NOAA

About Tom Sadler

Tom Sadler is the Network's deputy director. He has an extensive background in advocacy and journalism and a passion for oceans and fly-fishing. 

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