- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

FORKS, Wash. (AP) — 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 for two years 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. Indian tribes worry that the ban will worsen resentment of their tribal fishing rights.

Wild fish advocates, meanwhile, argue that it is high time to protect some of the last healthy runs of a treasured species. A ban is set to take effect April 1, in 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.”

But the steelhead population has 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 few streams mostly in Washington’s northwestern 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.

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-raised steelhead, which can be kept in most cases.

Miss 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Leland said.

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