Earlier this month, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission reacted to the threat of a possible lawsuit over management of the wild steelhead fishery in Idaho, which has been conducted without proper permits since 2010. IDFG and the Commission announced a temporary closure of the 2018 steelhead season. An IDFG press release says that this closure would have “no ecological benefit to wild steelhead,” but the Commission went forward anyway, inflicting pain on riverside Idaho communities that depend on a fishing economy, and which have struggled for years with dwindling stocks of salmon and steelhead.
There are two parts to this discussion. First, and most importantly, we must call everyone’s attention to the severe, unrelenting decline of Idaho’s steelhead runs. Steelhead numbers are in freefall, with only about 10,000 wild fish entering Idaho so far this year, a downturn from almost 40,000 only three years ago. Hatchery fish are in steep decline too, with only 46,000 so far this year compared to 136,000 three years ago. Most alarming is the situation for the big “B” steelhead, most revered by anglers; last year, fewer than 500 “Bs” returned. Idaho’s Governor, the Commission, IDFG staff, Outfitters and Guides, and anglers should be up in arms about this. It is a consequence of decades of failed federal policies and plans to reverse the decline and restore Idaho’s fish. Idaho has been complicit in this failure, by agreeing to remain silent while Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead slip ever closer to extinction. How long can this continue? Our silence should end now.
Second, there is a blatant administrative problem, pointing directly to another federal failure. IDFG says it submitted a draft fishery management plan for steelhead in 2010 to NOAA officials, but NOAA never processed or approved a permit. IDFG staff might deserve some heat for inattention too, but we suspect federal inaction is primarily to blame. Federal agencies have a long record of ignoring the plight of Idaho salmon and steelhead, and more generally, of ignoring Idaho values.
It is time to call out federal agencies and Idaho’s leaders, for this failure. In 2008, Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter signed a 10-year agreement with the Bonneville Power Administration to remain silent about federal salmon policy, most relevant in the management and operation of the federal hydrosystem downriver, where most of the damage is done to Idaho salmon runs. Just last month, Otter signed a four-year extension to that flawed agreement. This is a big mistake. Idaho needs its own voice in salmon policy. In 2004, an economic analysis of the value of a restored salmon sport fishery in Idaho concluded that a restored fishery would generate $544 million dollars per year of economic activity, a large portion of that going to rural communities. In todays’ dollars, it would likely be more.
We call on Idaho anglers, outfitter, guides, and riverside towns to challenge the governor and his Fish and Game Commission. Idaho wild salmon and steelhead are on an extinction path. Idaho deserves better. With new leadership coming to the governor’s office in January, Idaho has the opportunity to take back our heritage and work for solutions that actually recover our fish and keep Idahoans whole.