Nov. 02–With harvest restrictions in place for Clearwater River B-run steelhead this year, state fisheries managers are hearing complaints from some anglers about a tribal gill net harvest in the lower Snake River.
But fisheries officials for the Nez Perce Tribe said they are closely monitoring harvest, and the gill net fishery won’t prevent Clearwater River hatcheries from meeting their spawning goals. Fisheries managers from Idaho and Washington agree there is a limited number of steelhead available for tribal harvest without affecting hatchery needs.
Just like it has done for the past several years, the Nez Perce Tribe authorized a gill net fishing season that targets fall chinook, coho and steelhead on the Snake and Clearwater rivers this fall. The seasons were controversial when first implemented in 2006, but were quickly accepted and have occurred with little fanfare in the ensuing years.
But this is not a normal year for steelhead. The B-run has come in much lower than expected; so low, in fact, that fisheries managers feared sport anglers would catch too many and cut into broodstock — the number of fish that Dworshak National Fish Hatchery needs to produce the next generation. The tribe is a co-manager of the hatchery with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
To help protect broodstock, Idaho implemented an emergency rule that cut bag limits from two hatchery fish per day to one on the Clearwater River and its tributaries. In addition, the state is allowing anglers fishing between Orofino and the mouth of the Clearwater River to only keep jacks — B-run steelhead that are no longer than 28 inches.
Fisheries managers from the tribe, Idaho and Washington are meeting weekly to share harvest data and to update the strength of the run.
“The broodstock needs look to be achievable given the tribe’s status quo harvest (including gill net fishing) predicted numbers returning, and the states’ management action on their fisheries,” said Joe Oatman, harvest director for the tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resource Management, in an email to the Tribune.
By court precedent, harvest is split evenly between tribal and nontribal anglers. But Oatman said nontribal anglers typically catch far more steelhead than do tribal fishermen.
Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, agreed and said the harvest take is why the state felt the need to implement restrictions. Many thousands of anglers are licensed by Idaho and Washington each year and nontribal harvest can number in the tens of thousands for the entire Snake River basin. The tribe typically catches about 2,500 steelhead, with only a small percentage of those being B-run fish.
“We have a potential to get way more fish than they do just because of the sheer numbers of anglers,” DuPont said. “We have to make restrictions because of that, whereas the tribe might not have to make any restrictions.”
DuPont said the latest information indicates broodstock can be met with as few as 1,500 fish. About 200 to 300 will be collected on the South Fork of the Clearwater River. The remaining 1,200 to 1,300 will return to Dworshak and Kooskia hatcheries. About 2,000 B-run fish are expected to return to hatcheries this year, leaving several hundred available for harvest.
DuPont said the surplus is too small for the state to change its lowered bag limits.
The tribe, according to Oatman, has issued seven gill net permits this season and tribal anglers have caught 254 steelhead so far from the Snake River between Lower Granite Dam and the mouth of the Clearwater River. A small percentage of those fish were likely bound for the Clearwater River, he said.
Nontribal anglers fishing in the Snake River can also harvest Clearwater-bound fish, regardless of size. Glen Mendel, district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Dayton, said his agency will consider implementing restrictions to protect B-run fish if Idaho believes it is necessary. However, he said anglers fishing between Lower Granite Dam and the mouth of the Clearwater River typically don’t catch very many B-run fish.
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