Ted S. Warren  /  AP file
Men fish for steelehead salmon on the Hoh River near Forks, Wash., where a moratorium on wild steelhead has stoked passions.
updated 3/19/2004 1:11:28 PM ET 2004-03-19T18:11:28

The long-smoldering debate over whether fishermen should toss wild fish back into the water or take them home for dinner has flared into a culture war on Washington’s remote Olympic Peninsula.

Last month’s decision by state regulators to ban killing wild steelhead has many locals seething. The mayor is threatening to sue. Area merchants wonder whether fishermen will stay away if they can’t take home a trophy. And Indian tribes worry the ban will worsen resentment of their tribal fishing rights.

Wild fish advocates, meanwhile, argue that it’s high time to protect some of the last healthy runs of a treasured species. A ban is set to take effect April 1 — the heart of the season. It runs until March 31, 2006.

The steelhead — a variety of seagoing trout — is one of the world’s most sought-after game fish. Notoriously choosy about which flies or lures they will take, the fish can offer a breathtaking fight once hooked.

“A lot of people put steelhead above all other fish,” said Bob Leland, who manages steelhead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “For many people this is their religion.”

Population plunge
But steelhead have been hit hard in recent decades by habitat destruction and overfishing. In the mid-1950s, sport fishermen took more than 60,000 wild steelhead in Washington. In 2003, that number was 3,554, according to the Wild Steelhead Coalition’s review of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife data.

Hatchery-bred fish are still plentiful in many rivers, but native steelhead thrive in only a handful of streams, mostly in Washington northwesternmost corner such as the Hoh, the Sol Duc and the Bogachiel, where the protections of the Olympic National Park help protect habitat.

But even here, the wild runs are well below their historic heights. Conservationists fear a day when only hatchery fish — often scorned as “clones” by purists — will swim these rivers.

“We need to be very conservation oriented, assuring that we protect the fish first,” said Dick Burge, the Wild Steelhead Coalition’s vice president for conservation.

The coalition argues that the state’s policy of managing fish for the maximum sustainable harvest pushes steelhead too hard, leaving them vulnerable to poor ocean conditions, drought and silt-choked rivers.

Mayor sees 'elitists'
So the coalition persuaded the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to impose a two-year moratorium on killing wild steelhead anywhere in the state, a ban that has many locals up in arms.

“We’re talking about a decision made by a group of urban elitists who want the Olympic Peninsula as their playground,” said Nedra Reed, the mayor of Forks, a beat-up timber town that looks to steelhead-related tourism to ease some of the economic pain caused by logging cutbacks.

The new restriction applies to all steelhead without a missing adipose fin and a scar. That marking is used to distinguish hatchery-reared steelhead, which in most cases may be kept.

Reed is threatening to sue, arguing that the ban was improperly railroaded through the process and isn’t justified by science. She notes the Fish and Wildlife Department’s own biologists didn’t recommend the move.

Leland, the Fish and Wildlife manager, said the population can support the current rules, which allow keeping one fish per day for a total of five per year.

“The fish are replacing themselves,” Leland said.

Peter Van Gytenbeek, the commissioner who proposed the ban, said he believes Forks will prosper as fish populations rebound and draw in affluent catch-and-release anglers from around the world.

Tribes a player, too
The ban also has touched the always-raw nerve of tribal fishing rights. About half the local steelhead harvest — both hatchery and wild — winds up in the nets of the Quileute Indian Tribe, which uses the fish for food and sells it to upscale markets and restaurants.

“With the tribes still netting the river, you’re cutting off your little toe because your arm hurts,” said Bob Gooding, owner of Olympic Sporting Goods, who was chewing over the decision in his store on a recent slow weekday.

Mel Moon, the tribe’s director of natural resources, worries about increased resentment of Indian fisherman, and the possibility that the ban might result in too many fish competing for prime spawning grounds.

Fishing guide Mike Price is in favor of the ban. He’s been fishing the local rivers for decades and remembers when the wild fish ran in the fall and winter, not just the spring.

“They were big, beautiful fish,” Price said. “Those fish are gone.”

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