We are at a tipping point. Many rivers in Washington and Oregon are seeing fewer steelhead returning to their natal streams, which has caused widespread closures on once historic fishing seasons. Even rivers that are currently seeing steelhead returns well within their historical range are closed to angling. Closing rivers to sport angling threatens the loss of future generations of passionate steelhead stewards and river advocates, which undermines long-term conservation efforts.
I was 8, growing up in Oregon, when I caught my first steelhead. My father handed me his rod, and I felt the electric jolt of a steelhead rip line off my little reel and nearly pull me into the river. That was 30 years ago. A lot has changed. The one constant is that I still fish for steelhead as much as possible, though, like some, my efforts have shifted more into conservation and education. Without my home water, my father, and that fish, I would not be a passionate advocate for conservation of steelhead and wild healthy rivers today.
Where will the next generation of advocates come from if they do not have local fishing opportunities and steelhead to send bolts of lightning into their hearts? Who will remind them that the steelhead is Washington’s state fish? Who will go to state Department of Fish and Wildlife commission meetings to ask questions about habitat restoration and fish populations? Who will argue against Alaska’s Pebble Mine and mining the Skagit River headwaters? Who will advocate for the protection of the Thornton Creek watershed in Seattle or returning chum and coho salmon into Carkeek Park? Who will remind Washingtonian’s that once endangered bald eagles rely on healthy salmon populations to survive? What will Endangered Species Act-listed southern resident killer whales do when their primary food source becomes even more scarce?
These concepts are all connected and depend upon one another’s survival. Pacific Northwest ecosystems are supported by robust anadromous fish populations that require a healthy Puget Sound environment and healthy rivers that feed it. As such, diverse interest groups from steelhead fly fishers to orca advocates are natural allies in the conservation of those resources. Keeping rivers open to fishing, with appropriate regulations such as catch and release, is a long-term investment in conservation. Without passionate anglers, the river environment, the marine environment, the orcas, and the fish will lose an important voice.
Sometimes one voice can make all the difference. The story of Frank Moore, who lives on the North Umpqua River, is a perfect example of how steelhead fishing opportunities and passion lead to critical conservation legislation. Moore is a World War II veteran who fought on the beaches of Normandy in the D-Day allied invasion. He also has been fighting to protect wild steelhead on his beloved North Umpqua nearly his entire life. He has received multiple important conservation awards from the National Wildlife Federation and Wild Steelhead Coalition. Finally, in 2019, with bipartisan support, the Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary received both House and Senate support and will protect 100,000 acres of prime steelhead and salmon habitat. Where will the next Frank Moore come from if the rivers are closed?
Angling provides the connection between the angler and the fish as well as the river the two share. Upon that connection the foundation for advocating for fish and their future is formed. Rivers should remain open to sport fishing, with appropriate river-by-river regulations, or we risk the loss of the next generation of passionate conservationists.