Fish futures

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Federal fisheries officials are reviewing a Fisheries Monitoring and Evaluation Plan submitted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game that has the potential to affect the state’s ongoing and future steelhead fisheries.

The 32-page document spells out how the agency will conduct and monitor its steelhead fishery so impacts to protected wild steelhead, spring and summer chinook, sockeye and bull trout are minimized. If and when the plan is approved by the federal agency, the state will receive permission under the Endangered Species Act to incidentally harm a small percentage of the protected fish during fisheries for hatchery steelhead.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Division is taking public comment on the plan and simultaneously working on related biological opinions and documentation required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The process is likely to last months and could be completed this winter or early next spring.

Idaho first submitted the plan in 2010, but it has collected dust in the intervening eight years. In the meantime, the agency continued to hold steelhead fisheries based on an expired plan while annually reporting steelhead harvest data and other information to the federal government, including impacts on wild steelhead and other species under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The lack of an updated plan became a hot topic last month when a coalition of environmental groups announced its intention to file a lawsuit against Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, his Fish and Game commissioners and Virgil Moore, the director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, for holding the steelhead fishery despite not having an updated and federally approved monitoring and evaluation plan.

The groups are concerned with the low number of wild steelhead that have returned to the Snake River and its tributaries over the past two years. Idaho has reduced bag limits from three hatchery steelhead per day to just one because of the low numbers of returning fish. But the groups would like the state to take additional steps to protect wild steelhead up to and including shutting down the fishery. Even though anglers are required to release wild steelhead, the groups said the fish sometimes die following release.

“I think we have to make the most of the fish that do make it back to Idaho. We believe there is more the state can do to minimize or, as closely as possible, eliminate the effects of sport angling,” said David Moskowits of the Portland-based watchdog group Conservation Angler.

Officials from the department met Thursday with representatives of the Conservation Angler, Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater, Snake River Waterkeeper and Wild Fish Conservancy to discuss the issue. Idaho Fish and Game commissioners are scheduled to discuss the issue at their meeting Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene.

Allyson Purcell, branch chief for anadromus fisheries and inland fisheries for NOAA, said the agency placed the plan on the back burner because of its heavy workload related to processing plans designed to reduce the impact of the operation of salmon and steelhead hatcheries on protected wild fish.

“We have authorized this fishery through four permits in the past, starting when sockeye were listed,” Purcell said. “We evaluated and approved (past plans), and this is really just a lapse.”

She said based on the state’s submitted plan and previous versions of it, that steelhead fishing does not appear to be a threat to wild fish. “Based on the information we have, the impacts of this fishery are very low,” she said.

Lance Hebdon, salmon and steelhead manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise, said fisheries officials have more than 25 years of experience in managing steelhead fisheries and monitoring the effects on wild fish. The plan now under consideration is built on past plans and experiences, Hebdon said.

“This is pretty consistent with the way we have been operating since the fish were listed. We have large areas closed to fishing specific to protecting wild steelhead,” he said. “We have large areas we don’t release hatchery fish in consideration of protecting those wild steelhead — areas like the Lochsa, Selway, South Fork of the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon rivers — and we haven’t allowed harvest of wild steelhead since the 1980s.”

The state also has studied things like hooking- and handling-related injuries and mortality to steelhead that are caught and released. For example, he said the Fish and Game biologists conducted a study in conjunction with its efforts to develop a localized brood stock of steelhead in the South Fork of the Clearwater River. In that program, anglers are asked to voluntarily place both wild and hatchery steelhead they catch in special holding tubes that are then placed in the river. Fish and Game officials then collect those fish and take them to a hatchery for spawning.

The study, which is being peer reviewed, showed there was no impact on the survival of the eggs or offspring of those heavily handled fish.

“The bottom line is, as these issues come up and the public brings them up, we try to address them through a systematic and scientifically defensible study so we can answer the question ‘is this a concern we need to address?’ We have not found any thing that would point us in that direction yet,” Hebdon said.

The plan the state first submitted in 2010, which now is being processed by NOAA Fisheries has been updated several times, he said.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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