We’ve lost over 97 percent of Puget Sound’s once abundant wild steelhead. This week, five conservation groups filed suit against the federal government for failing to develop and implement a steelhead recovery plan.
WILD steelhead are Washington’s state fish. They are a Pacific Northwest icon that embodies the wildness that drew many of us to choose Washington as our home. They are renowned by anglers who travel to Washington from around the world to fish for them.
In addition to their intrinsic value as inspirational creatures that defy incredible odds during their lives, they have instrumental value to humans in the capacity to nourish us, contribute to Native American cultural fulfillment and stimulate Washington’s recreational fishing economy.
Wild Puget Sound steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; they are in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future. Beyond the legal obligation compelled by the Endangered Species Act, there are countless reasons to prevent their extinction. Chief among them for me is my hope that future generations — innocent of the actions that led to the collapse of this once robust wild steelhead population — will have the opportunity to be inspired by them.
We may be a long way from that day. We now have fewer than 3 percent of the Puget Sound wild steelhead that we had in 1900. The federal government has determined that the decline is the result of four main factors: damage to habitat, dams, overfishing and detrimental impacts from hatcheries.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agency charged with overseeing the recovery of steelhead) listed wild Puget Sound steelhead as threatened in 2007. Since then, state and federal agencies have been slow to act, and wild Puget Sound steelhead have continued to slide toward extinction. The Endangered Species Act requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop and implement “a road map for recovery.”
Endangered Species Act guidance states that the Steelhead Recovery Plan should have been completed within 2.5 years of the 2007 listing. Nine years later, we’re told it will be another four years before the plan is completed. Without a plan, state, tribal and federal agencies are flying blind. They are lacking a coordinated strategy or even clear wild steelhead recovery goals, let alone the means to achieve them. In the meantime, the wild steelhead decline continues.
Science, not politics, must guide the conservation of imperiled species. Fishery managers have resisted science-based recommendations that require significant changes to the hatchery and harvest practices that we’ve grown accustomed to and that some anglers feel entitled to. At times, government agencies appear to treat steelhead management like an entertainment industry, willing to place recreational fishing and the sale of fishing licenses and tackle above their — our — responsibility to recover threatened populations.
Wild steelhead recovery efforts must be guided by a coordinated science-based recovery plan, not political pressure and expediency. As we have seen for the past nine years, when recovery efforts are not guided by a science-driven plan, they are inefficient, expensive and ineffective — a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Turning the tide on the extinction of wild Puget Sound steelhead is going to require sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the public would have to accept fewer fishing opportunities in the near-term until recovery goals are met and healthy fish populations can once again sustain fisheries. While undeniably logical, this fact has proved politically unwelcome.
Aldo Leopold recognized some 65 years ago that all too often we abuse the land and the life it supports because we treat them as commodities that belong to us. But our “conservation ethic” — the duty society bears to preserve imperiled species and ecosystems — should shape the way we see the world and our role in it.
Agencies and leaders overseeing endangered species recovery efforts have a duty to look beyond our own generation, beyond our own immediate needs or perceived entitlements. They are accountable to future generations who are not yet at the table.
Let’s hope that when it finally arrives, the Puget Sound steelhead recovery plan provides a responsible, science-based road map to recovery. With only 3 percent of our wild Puget Sound steelhead left, doesn’t our conservation ethic require it?