IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news, where this column’s prediction that the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife would execute an emergency closure to end steelhead fishing on the Olympic Peninsula came to pass, right on schedule. You didn’t have to be a psychic to figure that one out. Closing fishing seasons is the standard go-to tactic for WDFW when all their other fisheries management scams fail.
One of the reasons given for this closure was the low state of the water in our West End rivers after a month of no rain. This is a temperate rainforest. When the rain stops, the rivers drop to mere trickles of their former selves. Salmon and steelhead are reluctant to return upstream, to the rivers where they were born, when there is no water in the river. They have to swim. Duh. Now, after the closure, it’s raining, and the rivers are high and muddy. Then, there was the bizarre situation where the state had closed almost every other river in the state to even catch-and-release fishing, while the rivers of the Peninsula were left open.
This crowded the last remaining hardcore steelhead anglers from all over the Western United States and beyond into smaller and smaller areas where they could be studied and monitored with drones, trail cams and teams of fish cops patrolling the water. This should have served as a warning.
Once the state started studying steelhead anglers, we knew it would be only a matter of time before we would be as endangered as the fish we were trying to catch. We should have known what was coming. It may be just a coincidence, but every other creature that the state of Washington is “studying,” from the marbled murrelet to the spotted owl, to the Southern Resident Orca, and even our iconic Olympic marmots, have had their populations decline while they were being studied.
Meanwhile, scientists have long studied the effects of overcrowding on mice and rats in the laboratory. The results give us a chilling perspective on human behavior. Back in the 1960s, a researcher named John Calhoun created a rat utopia and a mouse paradise with abundant food, where the rodents were free to overpopulate. This quickly lead to over-crowding, disputes over available food and seemingly sinister anti-social behavior which Calhoun termed, “behavioral sinks.” Over time, the surviving rodents displayed a lack of interest in sex and raising their young. While Calhoun’s research is still being debated, one can’t help but wonder if humans would behave in the same way, given the same conditions.
Similarly, the Olympic Peninsula was once described as a fishing paradise and a steelhead utopia. As more and more anglers were confined into a smaller area by the scientists, the overcrowding led to disputes over fish and other anti-social behaviors. This led to the row versus wade dispute. Wading anglers, who were stomping steelhead eggs into the gravel, wanted to ban boat anglers to keep them from dragging their anchors through the same gravel.
Overcrowding lead to dangerous incidents. Anglers flipped their boats in desperate attempts to fish rivers they were not capable of rowing and had to be rescued.
A striking parallel to Calhoun’s experiment was observed in the demographics of the surviving anglers on our rivers, where very few females and almost no juveniles were observed fishing for steelhead. This could indicate that the surviving anglers, like the surviving rats, had lost interest in sex and raising their young. Whether this represents a behavioral sink or an evolutionary trend is unsure. More research is needed.