FORKS, Wash. This is a fish story, but not about the one that got away. It's about the fish you catch, and whether you should put them gently back in the river or whack 'em on the head and take 'em home for dinner.
A sudden move by state regulators to ban killing wild steelhead in the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula has touched off a culture war. Many locals are seething. The mayor is threatening to sue. Area merchants wonder whether anglers will stay away if they can't take home a trophy. 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 species prized by anglers around the world.
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 like Northwest salmon, steelhead have been hit hard in recent decades by habitat destruction and overfishing. Wild fish are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in much of the region. In the mid-1950s, sport fishermen took more than 60,000 wild steelhead in Wash-ington. In 2003, that number was 3,554, according to the Wild Steelhead Coalition's review of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife data.
Fishing guide Mike Price talks about the effects of repeatedly hooking and releasing a steelhead as he stands near a wooden carving of the fish Monday, March 1, 2004 at Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks, Wash.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Hatchery-bred fish are still plentiful in many rivers, but native steelhead thrive in only a handful of streams, mostly on the remote Olympic Peninsula, Washington state's northwesternmost corner.
But even where sparse population and the protections of the Olympic National Park help preserve fish habitat, 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 consider it a very risky management program to continue the basic harvest plans that we have on those rivers,'' said Dick Burge, a retired Fish and Wildlife Department official who is now the Wild Steelhead Coalition's vice president for conservation. ''We need to be very conservation oriented, assuring that we protect the fish first.''
The coalition hopes to force a dramatic shift in the state's philosophy of managing fish to allow the maximum sustainable harvest.
Burge argues that the current policy pushes the wild steelhead population too hard, leaving them vulnerable to natural disasters such as ocean conditions, drought and silt-choked rivers. Meanwhile, closures on other rivers are pushing more and more anglers to the peninsula's streams.
So the coalition, well-versed in regulatory procedure, persuaded the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to impose a two-year moratorium on killing wild steelhead anywhere in the state, a ban that will mostly affect the Olympic Peninsula.
The ban, set to take effect April 1 in the heart of the season for wild steelhead, 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 the dramatic logging cutbacks of a decade ago.
Reed is threatening to sue the state to overturn the ban, arguing that it was improperly railroaded through the process, conflicts with state law and isn't justified by science. She notes that even the Fish and Wildlife Department's own biologists didn't recommend the move. Leland, the Fish and Wildlife manager, said the wild steelhead population is sufficient to support the current rules, which allow keeping one fish per day for a total of five per year.
''The numbers are there to provide that kind of harvest,'' Leland said. ''The fish are replacing themselves.''
Peter Van Gytenbeek, the commissioner who proposed the ban, said he believes Forks will prosper as wild steelhead populations rebound and draw in affluent catch-and-release anglers from around the world.
''I feel terrible about the fact that these people feel so badly, but I absolutely feel that we're doing the right thing,'' Van Gytenbeek said.
Even among locals who are neutral or in favor of the ban, being dictated to from hundreds of miles away rankles.
''The biggest concern is the way it was done. They railroaded it through,'' said Bob Gooding, owner of Olympic Sporting Goods, who was chewing over the decision with fishing guide Mike Price in his store on a recent slow weekday.
But talk to anyone in town for more than a few minutes, and the topic will turn to tribal fishing rights. A 30-year-old court decision means about half the local steelhead harvest both hatchery and wild winds up in the nets of the Quileute Indian Tribe.
''With the tribes still netting the river, you're cutting off your little toe because your arm hurts,'' Gooding said.
Tribal officials are worried about the ban as well, in part because they expect it might increase resentment among nontribal fishers who can't keep fish even as Indian-caught wild steelhead fillets rest on ice in upscale Seattle groceries.
Mel Moon, the tribe's director of natural resources, also worries that the ban might result in too many fish returning to spawn.
''Every system has a carrying capacity,'' Moon said. ''How many fish can you put in the system before there's crowding? There's only so many places where the ideal conditions exist for spawning.''
The decision has prompted vigorous debates in fishing shops and Internet forums where anglers congregate. Reed says she's been condemned as the ''catch-and-kill queen.'' Pungent opinions run high and hot on either side.
''Sooner or later, the restrictions are going to be here,'' said Price, who's been fishing the local rivers for decades, and remembers when wild fish ran in the fall and early winter, not just in the spring. ''They were big, beautiful fish. Those fish are gone.''
But Gary Smith scoffed at the decision as he fished the Hoh with two friends from nearby Sequim.
''It's stupid,'' Smith said. ''It's a bunch of Seattle-area steelheaders that are uptight because their streams are closed and ours are open.''
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