What should be the appropriate future fishing regulations for Strawberry Reservoir and its tributary streams? Every angler who regularly fishes Strawberry (and there are lots of you) has their own ideas. What a hot topic of discussion! It amazes me how often I overhear people talking about Strawberry and how it should be managed. If I casually mention that I am a fisheries biologist, it doesn't matter who I'm talking to, the topic of conversation usually focuses on Strawberry. "Tell ya what ya oughta do..."
It is very satisfying to be directly involved in making management recommendations for such an important and high quality recreational resource. Particularly now that the vast majority of our customers support our program and we are seeing success from our past efforts.
Strawberry has made a dramatic comeback, and maintaining the quality of the fishery is an utmost priority. However, development of regulations for future management is an extremely difficult and complex process. We are currently in the process of analyzing our data through 1994 and do not yet have a proposal for 1996. I would like to describe the process of coming up with a management recommendation and clarify our management goals for Strawberry. Before any changes are made, the public will have opportunity to comment.
In 1986, the Strawberry Interagency/citizen Fisheries Advisory Team (SIFAT) was established to devise a plan to restore the quality of the Strawberry Valley fishery. The SIFAT team was made up of members from resource management agencies and several sportsmen's organizations. At the time, the problems were easy to identify. Chubs and suckers dominated the reservoir. Tributary spawning habitat was degraded. Fishing was poor, in spite of increased stocking of larger trout. Use was declining, and smaller waters throughout the state were being over fished as people turned away from Strawberry. Something needed to be done to get Strawberry back to the "glory days" of the 1970s.
Accomplishment of the rehabilitation has been and will continue to be a cooperative effort involving dedicated commitment of agency personnel and sportsmen. There have been some stumbling blocks along the way, but right now we are very close to our long term objectives. Strawberry Reservoir and its tributaries were treated with rotenone in 1990, and restocking with Bear Lake cutthroat, sterile rainbow trout and kokanee salmon was initiated the same year. The Uinta National Forest has made excellent progress towards rehabilitation of tributary habitat. Survival and growth of stocked fish has been excellent. Angler use and fishing pressure has increased dramatically. Both cutthroat trout and kokanee have spawned successfully in the tributary streams.
Maintaining the quality of the fishery will involve changes in management with long term impacts as a primary consideration. The three sportfish species in Strawberry have different characteristics, so a simple regulation may not accomplish our long term goals. For example, we need to maintain a large population of Bear Lake cutthroat to allow natural reproduction and to act as biological controls on chubs and suckers. Because of their vulnerability, it is likely that cutthroat could be over harvested if bag limits are not restrictive. Even with the one cutthroat limit, we estimate that nearly 200,000 were harvested in 1994. Add to that an unknown (but significant) fraction of hooking mortality of the nearly 300,000 that were caught and released. That's a lot of fish!
Will we be able to liberalize the cutthroat limit and not over harvest the population? We don't yet know, but are in the process of modeling the population dynamics based on different regulations. We will be able to estimate survival of our different stocks from our gillnet sampling. We can estimate harvest from our annual creel survey data. We can also predict what harvest would have been if the limits would have allowed taking different numbers and/or specific sizes of cutthroat. Since we know how many cutthroat were planted each year and can estimate the numbers of fry produced by natural reproduction, we can estimate the population in future years under different levels of harvest. The most difficult factor to estimate is future fishing pressure. Illegal harvest can also be significant, and is difficult to estimate.
Rainbow trout and kokanee are not managed with the same objectives as are cutthroat, therefore, these species may require different bag limits. Most of the anglers who fish Strawberry like to keep fish, and sterile rainbows are planted to provide harvest opportunity. Rainbows are managed for maximum returns (basic yield), and numbers are controlled by stocking. In order to increase the numbers of rainbows available for harvest, we have upped stocking quotas and started scatter planting fingerlings from a barge to minimize predation losses. This coming year should produce excellent rainbow fishing. Angler attitudes have shifted so that is is hard to justify the need for liberal limits to "make the trip worthwhile." Interestingly, of the quarter million rainbows caught at Strawberry in 1994, nearly half were voluntarily released. Until now, the current eight fish rainbow limit has not resulted in over harvest. Very few anglers catch and keep full limits, so reducing the bag limit to anything more than three or four would not result in a sigruficant harvest reduction. If pressure and harvest increase significantly, it may be necessary to reduce the limit in order to spread out the catch.
The kokanee fishery in Strawberry has developed steadily over the last few years. There is a growing portion of anglers targeting kokanee, many of whom learned their tactics at Flaming Gorge during the years that fishing was poor at Strawberry. Because of the relatively low population of kokanee, and specialized techniques required for catching them, they have been virtually unexploited until they reach maturity. That sure helps in getting natural reproduction established. However, many of the adults have returned to the boat ramp areas where they were planted. Since spawning habitat is limited in those locations, most of the spawners die without reproducing. Whether or not to encourage harvest of these surplus adults has been a major topic of debate in recent issues of this magazine. Biologically, there is not a good reason to protect surplus fish that will not spawn successfully nor survive to be caught in subsequent seasons. Ethically, it may be inappropriate to encourage heavy harvest on one species if it results in over exploitation of other species or if it creates enforcement problems.
"Very few anglers catch and keep full limits, so reducing the bag limit to anything more than three or four would not result in a significant harvest reduction."
Whether or not to open the tributaries to angling is a separate matter which we have not yet addressed. The tributaries are our "ace in the hole" for cutthroat. Resident populations have become well established and are flourishing in the rehabilitated streams. Recruitment of cutthroat (and kokanee) from the tributaries has occurred, but not yet in adequate numbers to justify reduced stocking. Utah State University is currently conducting studies of spawning and recruitment. As recruitment goals are reached, it may be appropriate to allow angling opportunity on the tributary streams. By necessity, regulations will be restrictive. Seasonal closures during spawning, low bag limits (if any) and potentially gear restrictions will be considered. The objective will be to allow recreational opportunity with minimal impacts to the resource.
In summary, we have not yet developed a new regulation proposal for Strawberry. The current program and outstanding support and compliance by Strawberry anglers has resulted in a jewel of a fishey. Our long term goal will be to maintain the quality of the fishery and to provide diverse opportunities. The SIFAT team will be reconvened to ensure interagency and sportsman support of new proposals for fishery and resource management policies in Strawberry Valley. Because we have three species with different management characteristics, regulations will possibly be complicated. That will necessitate educating anglers to be able to properly identify the species of fish they catch and to release fish with minimal hooking mortality. Additional education is needed to teach anglers how to target different species by using special techniques and fishing specific areas and/or times.
Copyright Dave Webb, 2005