The fighting spirit of Pete Soverel
The status of wild winter-steelhead populations can drive the most committed steelheaders to seek refuge near the fringes of Salmo Mykiss’ geographical range—fewer anglers can mean a few more fish. So, after 19 hours of driving, I pull my truck into the dark driveway descending to a rustic lakefront cabin. Towering cedars block what scant skylight remains at the end of a dreary day. The lake out back is frozen. In the northernmost corner of the British Columbia coast I have found the springtime hideout of an old friend, but by the looks of things my favorite season is still held in the grasp of a stubborn winter, and won’t break free for another three weeks.
The screen door swings open and Pete Soverel appears, followed by a waft of woodstove heat. We shake hands and embrace in man-hug back-pats. Ten minutes later I’m staring at the frozen lake from my guest room, thinking exactly what Pete says: “It’s still winter here.”
Detailing a man’s life based on what others have to say about him can be a difficult proposition. If peers share conflicting sentiments, the writer is forced to make choices. But in this case, a story about Soverel—founder of the Wild Salmon Center (1992), founder of the Kamchatka Steelhead Project (1994), and founder (2003) and current president of The Conservation Angler—practically writes itself. I interviewed a few of Pete’s peers from his twenty-five year effort to save wild salmon: Bill McMillan, John McMillan, Tom Pero, Dave Moskowitz, and Guido Rahr. Each was equally effusive. In the world of salmon conservation, there are no conflicting impressions of Soverel. He has a moral compass, a dedicated work ethic, and a passionate drive to save wild steelhead.
Every serious steelheader I know is concerned about the future of these wild fish, while simultaneously working to become a better angler. These two ideas may seem to conflict with each other—improving your skills in order to catch more of an imperiled species. But this paradigm is necessary, in part because it helps quantify the effort it takes to catch steelhead on a fly. Soverel has dedicated a lifetime to collecting this empirical data. Using a method with the least impact on wild populations, a steelheader is constantly collecting information to support his or her growth as a conservationist. Put simply: If you’re not out there putting in the effort, then it’s hard to know how things are going.
Soverel graduated from the Naval Academy in 1963 and charged into a military career that would span five decades. He spent twenty-seven years as a commissioned officer, including stints commanding the destroyer USS Higbee and the frigate USS Hepburn. In 1967-68, Soverel directed joint Army-Navy strike operations throughout Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where he was awarded a Silver Star. He also earned a Bronze Star, a Navy Commendation Medal, and a Presidential Unit Citation that was awarded by President Johnson for his unit’s performance during the 1968 Tet counter-offensive.
After Vietnam, Soverel earned a graduate degree from the University of Washington and went on to hold a number of staff and policy positions within the Departments of Navy and Defense, including Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College, 1975-1977; Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, under President Carter, 1977; Director, Defense Operations, U.S. Mission to NATO, 1982-1985; head of Policy and Plans for Europe and NATO, 1985-1986; and White House Staff, Special Counselor to President Reagan for Iran-Contra Matters,1987, where he was responsible for policy development and coordination with the various Iran-Contra investigative bodies.
From 1987-2011, Soverel transitioned primarily to academia, working as an adjunct professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, where he taught courses on strategy, policy, national security, and terrorism. His college teaching career overlapped with extensive conservation work. In addition to his work with the Wild Salmon Center and Kamchatka Steelhead Project, he has served as either chairman or director for the Steelhead Committee of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Save Our Wild Salmon, the Rivers Council of Washington, and the Steelhead Society of British Columbia. He was also founder of Wild Salmon Rivers—a Washington State-based salmon and steelhead conservation organization operating since 2001.
“Pete is the best possible outcome of education and military training,” says Bill McMillan, a lifelong conservationist and one of the most noted observers of steelhead behavior. “He is unrelenting once a purpose is determined, yet he knows how to change course if needed to achieve the desired outcome. And his capacity to outfit and lead expeditions to remote areas is unsurpassed. He could well have been one of the great explorers, in the vein of Lewis and Clark.”
A couple hours after my arrival at Pete’s rented cabin, we are settled in for the evening, sipping whiskey and reminiscing about our 23 years of shared outdoor experiences. I ask him about the early days of the Wild Salmon Center. “When I retired, I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna give five years to helping steelhead.’ Fishing and hunting have been a life-long passion, and preeminent among those passions has been steelhead. They’re at the top of my outdoor interest. Steelhead have been the lodestar.”
The Wild Salmon Center idea was defined in a letter to Soverel dated February 3, 1992, from Tom Pero, then editor of Trout magazine. The group’s main purpose, the letter said, was to function as, “the undisputed clearinghouse for authoritative, scientific information on the status of stocks of native Pacific salmonids in watersheds of the North Pacific Ocean, from California to Alaska, to the Sea of Japan.” Two additional functions were to educate and empower, using the future assemblage of scientific literature to serve those purposes.
“Pete is a pessimistic optimist,” says Pero, who now owns Wild River Press, a publisher of flyfishing books. “Despite all evidence to the contrary—watching fishery after fishery plundered during his life—he still holds out hope that somehow man will wake up and, as he puts it, ‘do the right thing.’ He has keen intelligence, but a lot of people have smarts and aren’t very effective. The difference with Pete is that he is an intuitive strategist. When most of us are still grappling with the realities of a wrecked river, Pete’s mind is already way out front, imagining solutions. And usually they are practical solutions.”
Soverel believes there is a lack of integrity inherent in the fisheries management system. So, naturally, certain players in that system fell into his crosshairs. “For me, truth and integrity is your salvation,” he says. “You never have to worry about what the story was. You know what the story was because it was always the truth. Career bureaucrats in resource agencies wind up making little compromises along their professional life. They don’t dig their heels in and stand up for what they know to be true. Do you want to stake your career on one little thing? No, probably you don’t, but you figure out a way that your adversaries and supporters and the general public can trust that what you say is a core belief, and that you’re not just making something up.”
Pero describes this belief as part of Soverel’s eternal drive. “He has a desire for better fishing, sure, for a return to some semblance of the good old days of steelhead abundance. But on a deeper, more visceral level, I think it’s moral outrage. He cannot fathom that human beings—many in positions of official responsibility for the fish runs they should be managing—are willfully destroying those wild resources.”
The first thing Soverel worked on after retiring was a K-12 program. “I was incensed that the extent of the public education curriculum regarding wild salmon was a bunch of kids getting chum fry from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife so that they could raise them in cups in their classroom and then go down to some creek and release them. As if all salmon could be raised in a classroom as opposed to being a wild creature.”
Sensing educational injustice, Soverel and Pero went to the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation with grant proposals for a K-12 education program, and a program to educate teachers. “They told us, ‘This is exactly the kind of program we’d like to fund, but you guys aren’t a 501-C3,'” Soverel recalls. “So we went to the library to find out what a 501-C3 was, then we filed our application and soon heard back that we’d been provisionally approved.” However, when the two went back to the foundation for full approval, they learned that Bullitt had just changed executive directors and was no longer interested. “So there we were,” Soverel says, “all dressed up without a date.”
But other plans emerged. Soverel had a colleague on the Federation of Fly Fishers’ Steelhead Committee named John Sager, who, along with fellow steelheader Serge Karpovich—both former CIA agents—approached him with an idea: Investigating steelhead in Kamchatka, Russia. “They are natural populations that have never seen a hatchery,” Karpovich told Soverel. “And other than some illegal, industrial-grade fishing, human impacts on the population there are negligible.”
Karpovich funded the effort to bring Professor Dr. Ksenia Savvaitova, of Moscow State University, to Seattle to meet with Soverel. Dr. Savvaitova is the author of The Noble Trouts of Kamchatka, and she is the world’s only expert on Kamchatkan steelhead. “I remember Dr. Savvaitova saying, ‘We have fish and we have scientists, but we don’t have any money,'” Soverel says.
“I told her that we had lots of money. Which wasn’t exactly true at the time, but I was pretty confident that we could raise it.”
Soverel had heard of amateur paleontologists sponsoring a university’s scientific expedition to Mongolia, in which the sponsors were allowed to go along as diggers. So he started thinking… “Russian steelhead are protected, and people aren’t allowed to fish for them, but if anglers could use fishing as a way to collect biological samples, and the Russian government would authorize the trips not as angling expeditions, but as scientific ones, then maybe…” He ran the idea past Savvaitova, who said she thought she could get the permits. “Well then,” Soverel said, “I think I can get the anglers.”
I still remember the pitch Pete gave me on the phone back in 1994: “This is an exploratory expedition,” he said. “If you like the idea of traveling to the edge of the earth to find steelhead, this is gonna be the real deal.” Ultimately, Soverel got $25,000 from NOAA, $25,000 from the State Department (“promoting democracy”), and $20,000 between myself and three other sponsors. For $70,000 we conducted the first scientific steelhead expedition in Kamchatka, where we found uninhabited watersheds and quite a few steelhead.
Prior to my introduction to Soverel and the Kamchatka Steelhead Project, my experiences with salmon conservation involved discussing relevant connections between trees, rivers, eagle shit, and dead salmon, over pints of beer in one of Portland’s seedy taverns with a circle of recently acquired, socially well-placed peers. The notion that a scientific expedition to the extreme edge of Mykiss’ range could somehow steer the needle toward effective management of wild stocks was nothing more than a fuzzy idea.
The many uncertainties we experienced during that first expedition might have unraveled the entire effort if Pete hadn’t properly prepared us with warnings like: “Have no expectations.” “The helicopter will get here when it gets here.” “Don’t ask what’s in the soup.” After two days of travel our small group of five anglers, including Pete, unloaded our gear onto a two-hundred-yard-long rolling bench above the meandering Kvachina River. When the whine and thump of a departing MI-8 faded to the north, there was an almost total absence of sound. No planes. No wind. No voices. Only the quietest babbling of water running through the shoreline grass, 75 yards away. I turned toward the modest camp and pondered the logistics required to make it all happen.
“I can’t imagine all of the bureaucratic hell and red tape he and his colleagues went through to even get the project off the ground,” says John McMillan, son of Bill McMillan, and Science Director of Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. “Let alone running the camps and collecting high-quality data in very remote locations. To me, there is no better story than Pete making the Kamchatka steelhead conservation project happen, and maintaining it successfully for more than 20 years.”
Pete’s ability to navigate the diplomatic uncertainties we faced in the first years of the Kamchatka Steelhead Project was key to the program’s success. Imagine entering the former Soviet Union in 1994 as a retired naval officer—under the auspices of science—and flyfishing for endangered steelhead? Fortunately, Pete’s sense of honor created an intrinsic trust between all parties involved in the early days of the project.
One afternoon, Pete and I fished a stretch of water upstream from camp. As he worked down the run below me, a brief window in the clouds opened to let sunlight through. Pete’s casts were launched toward the treetops across the river. The long line unfurled completely, landing straight on the water. A mend. A step. His line worked across the current, slowly. Pete fished General Practioners, a prawn pattern tied with long tails, at least twice the length of the body. In the slightest of currents, the tails served two functions: the stiff fibers kept the fly swimming with a searching action, much like how the tail on a kite stabilizes its motion in the wind; and they also oriented the shank horizontally to the bottom. With little tension on the line, the fly sank in a natural manner. And when the tension came tight, it moved about with that searching motion, like a real piece of food. He also used a special nail knot to secure the fly. Pete’s presentations out-fished the combined effort of the other three anglers in camp by a factor of five or six. I got used to hearing a predictive sequence: A loud “zip” as his line came tight against a heavy fish, followed by Pete’s handle: “Yo, Baby!”
One week into our expedition, with temps hovering around freezing, I dried my hands on my waders as Pete finished recording the data we had just collected from a two-toned chrome bar of a fish. I stood upright and noticed, for the first time in many days, a vibrant sun-soaked landscape. Western Kamchatka was not the bleak land we were tolerating under relentless clouds. It became a chromatic explosion when the low-arching October sunlight touched it. “This is how people were meant to exist,” Pete said. “In small groups, where each person plays a role in the survival of the clan.” Back in camp, the staff prepared meals as the scientists dissected steelhead in their tiny tented laboratory. Five anglers worked hard to collect the data for the project. All of our bases were covered.
“My favorite vision of Pete is of him sitting on the hood of a Russian armored personnel carrier in mid-October, 1995,” Bill McMillan says, recalling his time as Camp Director on the Kvachina River. “A helicopter had landed on what was a goose refuge, with a couple of American anglers who hadn’t been sanctioned by the Russians. I’d called in the violation the evening before, to Pete, who was at the Utkolok Camp along with a Russian enforcement officer. On Pete’s arrival, he and I took the enforcement officer downstream and had some serious discussions. The illegal encampment and helicopter soon left, with the people bitterly complaining. It was a critical moment in being able to enforce the Red Book listing of steelhead, and the agreements that had been made with the Russian scientists.”
By 1998, the data we’d collected from three rivers had presented 21 different life histories of steelhead in western Kamchatka. It is easy to imagine that steelhead populations in North America were just as diverse, before man set out to “improve nature” with dams and hatcheries.
Perhaps the strongest acknowledgement of Soverel’s role in the realm of steelhead conservation comes from his Wild Salmon Center successor, Guido Rahr, the organization’s current President and CEO. “There’s no one out there in the world of conservation like Pete Soverel,” Rahr says.
“He is truly a fearless leader. I’ve learned so much from him about how to run an organization.”
Since the day he was hired, Rahr has developed and implemented a Pacific Rim-centered “Salmon Stronghold” strategy—the flagship program for the present day Wild Salmon Center. This stronghold approach is based on the premise that it is easier and cheaper to conserve a salmon river while it’s still healthy, than to fix one after it’s broken. Soverel returns the compliments: “Guido has a lot to be proud of. He took an organization that was operating out of my closet and turned it into an international player. He is the reason the Wild Salmon Center is where it is today.”
Dave Moskowitz, the current executive director of The Conservation Angler, presents a time-relevant perspective: “I had always admired Pete’s fearlessness and directness, and I was happy with my work at WSC under his board chairmanship. I believed in his leadership style, his ability to trust the expertise of his staff, and the regard and deference he has given me since we started working together at The Conservation Angler.”
The Conservation Angler’s specific, targeted, and focused approach involves establishing the scientific and legal basis to reform and operate hatchery and harvest regimes throughout the range of Pacific salmon. It is an area fraught with conflict—wild v. hatchery; fly v. gear; gear v. bait; catch-and-release v. kill; white guys v. tribes; commercial v. recreational. You have to have a thick skin, and you have to be more concerned about your kids or grandkids catching wild fish on wild rivers than how many fish you landed on your last trip. Soverel could have been one of those guys who just fished his retirement away in the luxury of top-ten rivers, but he has sacrificed his own angling opportunities to protect the fish and the rivers for everyone else.
The Conservation Angler is fighting against an industrial-harvest regime that is driving wild steelhead to extinction, and they are prepared to litigate. “I have worked with numerous fish conservation groups over the past 45 years, some having effectively persisted, others having lost their way in vision, and some having disappeared altogether,” says Bill McMillan, presently the group’s archivist. “Pete and I have worked together on numerous issues for more than 25 years. Over time I have learned which conservation endeavors to continue to expend energy and time on, and Pete has proven to have the necessary tenacity to stay on course, with a focus on the needs that can actually achieve wild salmon and steelhead recovery. This includes making hard choices, such as recognizing when fish managers themselves are negligent in their duties.”
While there are examples of populations where wild and hatchery fish co-exist, and the wild component is purportedly healthy (North Umpqua, for one), it’s difficult to know how healthy the wild component could be if the hatchery component was removed. Kamchatka provides a window into this possibility: The Kvachina, Snotalvayam, and Utkholok rivers were subjected to intense poaching from 1963 until curtailed by the Kamchatka Steelhead Project in 1994. The population of wild adults in each river-system had been reduced to about 2,000 fish. With the end of industrial-level poaching and the presence of federal fisheries officials with the Kamchatka Steelhead Project, the steelhead populations in each of these three affected rivers resulted in an immediate and rapid recovery. Today each of those rivers supports 8,000-15,000 adults, without hatchery supplementation.
In the case of wild salmon and steelhead, imposing our will upon the species by creating artificial conditions through propagation has not worked. Fish and wildlife managers have known for a long time that the introduction of hatchery stocks, where wild fish predominate, is detrimental to the wild stocks. The agencies have had decades to find a solution to the debacle we have created. But they have failed, and the current dire condition of the Pacific Northwest’s wild fish is the proof.
People like Bill McMillan, Dave Moskowitz, and of course, Pete Soverel, are working to ensure that the agencies responsible for the protection of the environment and the sustainability of wild fish, do their job. And if they don’t, The Conservation Angler will take up a position. Soverel’s pragmatic nature masks the underlying reality that he is in the race to win, and will use whatever means necessary to do it, “If you’re not in a position to litigate, then why are you even involved?” he asks. “You’ve gotta hold their feet to the fire. Every conservation victory I’ve had has been the direct result of a raised hammer.”