Steelhead anglers are being enlisted to help researchers at the University of Idaho and Idaho Department of Fish and Game measure angling effects on wild steelhead, and in some cases they can get paid for their participation.

The two entities are embarking on a two-year study aimed at determining how many wild steelhead are caught during the state’s fishing season, known as an encounter rate, and how many of those fish survive to reach spawning grounds.

To figure it out, UI graduate student Will Lubenau is attaching small plastic, orange tags to about 1,000 adult wild steelhead and about 200 hatchery steelhead intercepted at a sampling site at Lower Granite Dam. The fish also are being implanted with tiny Passive Integrated Transponder tags, also known as PIT tags, that allow the researchers to learn when the fish cross tag detectors installed at the mouths of natal spawning areas such as the Lochsa, Selway, South Fork of the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon rivers.

Here is how the study works and the role anglers are being asked to play: When someone catches a steelhead with one of the orange tags — that look like a piece of spaghetti — biologists would like them to either clip off the tag and send it in to the state or record an identification number on it and report it to the state. Anglers who send in or report tags will also be asked when and where they caught the tagged fish. Several, but not all, of the tags will come with rewards that range from $25 to $200.

The study will measure how many of the tagged steelhead are caught in the fishery and ultimately how many of those fish make it back to their spawning grounds versus tagged fish that were not caught and released during the season. The purpose is to get a better understanding of the encounter rate of wild steelhead in the fishery and the degree to which being caught and released may be responsible for wild steelhead deaths.

“The study is dependent on anglers reporting where and when they catch tagged fish that are caught and released,” Lubenau said. “Each reported fish will be a valuable data point that furthers the understanding of the influence, or lack thereof, of catch-and-release angling on wild steelhead populations, which will be valuable information to better manage steelhead angling opportunities.”

Last fall, in the midst of the terribly low return of both hatchery and wild steelhead to the Snake River, a small group of conservation organizations threatened to sue the state if it didn’t shut down steelhead fishing. They had legal leverage because Idaho’s federal permit that allows the fishing season, in which Endangered Species Act-protected steelhead could be caught and even harmed, had expired.

The conservation groups were willing to spike their lawsuit if the state agreed to additional measures they said would further protect wild fish. It included things like not allowing anglers to use bait, fish from boats or lift wild steelhead from the water to take photographs.

Idaho Fish and Game officials were unwilling to make changes, and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted to suspend the popular fishing season rather than risk losing in court. A last-minute agreement kept the season open, but questions about the degree to which wild fish are harmed when they are caught and released persist.

Michael Quist, an associate professor of fisheries management at the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources, said the study will shed light on questions raised by the threatened lawsuit but that it is not a response to it.

“It’s been a big issue and certainly in recent times has been more of a hot topic,” Quist said. “Having said that, it is very timely. These are questions people are obviously concerned about. Idaho Fish and Game is obviously concerned about wild fish conservation as well as proving a fishery for hatchery fish.”

Idaho has since been issued a permit for its fishery. But there is still concern that angling may be playing a small, negative role in the struggle to save wild steelhead. That concern is heightened because wild steelhead numbers have plunged over the past few years. This year is expected to be no exception, with the return of wild B-run steelhead bound for the Clearwater River Basin, South Fork of the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon predicted to number fewer than 1,000 adult fish.

Wild steelhead in the Snake River Basin are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. By law, anglers who catch wild steelhead, identifiable by intact adipose fins, must release the fish unharmed. Fisheries managers assume as many as 5 percent of the caught and released wild fish perish from injuries or exhaustion. The state’s steelhead fishing permit requires that no more than 3.5 percent of returning wild steelhead die as result of being handled by anglers.

Quist said the way Idaho estimates wild fish encounter rates and its commitment to keep wild steelhead mortality under 3.5 percent is likely overly conservative. For example, he said during much of the year wild fish and hatchery fish are concentrated in different parts of Idaho’s rivers. That was highlighted in a recent study by another UI graduate student.

He expects the new work may show that far fewer wild steelhead perish from being caught and released than is now believed and permitted.

“We should be able to get a very focused and very clear estimate of encounter rates and not just how many (are caught); it’s where are they when those fish are caught. Right now we really don’t know that,” Quist said. “Hopefully it will provide some insights down the road that if managers need to fine tune things they will have some information.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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