Columbia Anglers

Anglers on the Columbia River.

As Columbia and Snake river steelhead face yet another record-low run, fish managers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho say additional fishing restrictions won't do much to improve their odds of survival. But all three states have added restrictions on steelhead fishing since Aug. 27, including some new closures.

This year's cumulative passage so far at Bonneville Dam is currently the lowest on record since fish counters started tracking fish numbers in 1938. The passage of wild, or "unclipped" steelhead—which have an intact adipose fin—is also the lowest since 1994, when fish counters started tracking the passage of unclipped steelhead. A total of 39,328 steelhead had passed Bonneville Dam as of Aug. 31, which is 27 percent of the 10-year average by that date. That includes 17,533 wild steelhead, or 30 percent of the 10-year average.

On Aug. 27, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced emergency restrictions in four Columbia River tributaries, the Deschutes, Umatilla, John Day and Walla Walla rivers. On Sept. 3, Washington put new restrictions on the Snake, Grande Ronde, Touchet, Tucannon and Walla Walla rivers. On Sept. 1, Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners voted unanimously to retain a steelhead fishing season, but reduced the bag limit for steelhead anglers to one fish per day from Sept. 3 through Dec. 31. Anglers may retain 20 fish per season.

Conservation groups say more should be done. Calling it an "unprecedented crisis," seven groups sent a letter to the chairs of fish commissions in all three states, asking for the immediate closure of all recreational steelhead fishing in the Columbia Basin.

After all three states took action, The Conservation Angler responded with a letter to all three state commissions on Sept. 4 saying first steps had been taken. “It is now time to take the remaining steps and complete the journey. Failure to do so will concentrate angler effort on certain river sections and enhance localized impacts on vulnerable populations.”

"We think that this is an extraordinarily low run, and every fishery should bear some of the burdens," David Moskowitz, executive director of The Conservation Angler, told NW Fishletter.

Moskowitz and his legal and policy director Rob Kirschner analyzed all of the restrictions taken so far, thanked the agencies for their initial efforts, but noted that the return is so low this year that absent a complete closure, every restriction—including prohibiting bait and closing some tributaries to all fishing—should be considered.

Their analysis included additional measures that could be taken in the Columbia River and Drano Lake, and several tributaries including the Klickitat, Deschutes, John Day, Snake, Clearwater, Salmon, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers. It dives into issues such as banning bait, and party boats rules that allow each person in a boat to keep fishing until each person reaches their limit.

Moskowitz said every fish counts when there are so few that wild steelhead returning to some tributaries may have difficulty finding each other.

He noted that it's too late in the run to adjust anything except fishing within the Columbia Basin, and—considering the treaties—it's unreasonable to ask tribes to curtail fishing until recreational fishing has committed to deeper cuts.

This year also follows a string of particularly low runs, including the previous record low in 2019-2020. An analysis by the Nez Perce Tribe found that 19 percent of the Snake River steelhead stocks have already reached quasi-extinction.

The preseason forecasts for this year's Columbia Basin steelhead returns were already low, and those in charge of fishing rules in Washington, Oregon and Idaho said this year's fishing rules already reflected the low run. The forecast for A-index fish—those that spend one year in the ocean—had been for a return of 89,200, which included 27,500 wild steelhead.

The A-index steelhead generally return earlier than B-index steelhead, which are larger after remaining in the ocean for two years. Fish managers say it is too soon to predict whether there will also be fewer B-index steelhead.

On Aug. 16, the U.S. v. Oregon Technical Advisory Committee downgraded its forecast to a total of 35,000 A-index steelhead passing Bonneville Dam by Oct. 31. Soon after, the steelhead counts at Bonneville started to pick up, and on Aug. 30, the committee adjusted its estimate to 42,600 total A-index steelhead to cross Bonneville, including 25,700 hatchery-origin steelhead and 16,900 wild steelhead.

"A week ago, we were preparing staff recommendations that were more draconian than the recommendation today," Ed Schriever, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told his commission on Sept. 1. He said the run is so late that fish managers believed steelhead numbers in Idaho would be vastly smaller than preseason forecasts. But an "uptick" in the numbers during the last week of August led his staff to determine with a high degree of confidence that the hatchery run will exceed broodstock needs and there will be few risks to wild fish because many anglers won't show up with a smaller bag limit.

Lance Hebdon, IDFG's fisheries bureau chief, said closing steelhead fishing is "a fairly unprecedented action in Idaho," although the agency did close the Clearwater River to fishing in 2019 and 1974.

He added that staff will not make a recommendation about fishing for B-index steelhead until they have more confidence in the size of that run.

He said they are very confident that there will be more than enough A-index hatchery steelhead to meet broodstock needs, which gives anglers the opportunity to catch the remaining hatchery fish.

Ryan Lothrop, Columbia River fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that in Washington and Oregon, no recreational or commercial nontribal fishing that directly targets wild steelhead is allowed, but some are killed when they are caught and released. He said some wild steelhead are killed during fishing for other species in many parts of the Columbia and Snake rivers, and in many tributaries.

At a two-hour joint meeting with Fish and Wildlife Commission members from both Washington and Oregon on Aug. 27, Lothrop said fish managers had already developed a suite of actions to reduce impacts to summer steelhead from commercial fishing, and bans on steelhead retention or angling closures in the main stem and tributary fisheries for steelhead bound for the upper river. Lothrop said the agencies have a good track record of keeping impacts to threatened wild steelhead below 2-percent mortality. With added restrictions this year, fall season impacts to A-index steelhead were estimated at 0.59 percent, or 161 mortalities; and to B-index steelhead at 1.03 percent, or 10 mortalities, Lothrop said.

"There just aren't many more places to get significant savings, given we're pretty much down to salmon-only fisheries," he said, noting angling that is still allowed is structured to minimize the handling of steelhead, which must be released.

He said there was one location upstream of The Dalles Dam that was still open to hatchery steelhead fishing. There had been no steelhead kept and four steelhead released for that fishery. With the low run size, he said, basically no one's fishing for steelhead.

Commissioners asked about the use of bait, the reliability of fishing logbooks without having state observers on commercial boats, cold water refuge, whether this year's run could just be late, and whether steelhead might stay in the ocean another year.

Lothrop said steelhead generally have a life-cycle strategy that sends them back to their natal river to spawn at a specific time. "They will battle the dams, they will swim up river, they'll swim through anything and everything to get home," he said. He said there could be other factors that determine whether steelhead stay two years or one year in the ocean, but once fish approach the Columbia River, they head back to the river where they were born.

Tucker Jones, ODFW's ocean salmon and Columbia River program manager, added, "Certainly as the climate changes and makes our world more unpredictable as we go, I think relying on historic run timing may become more difficult." He said there's nothing that would prohibit a steelhead from spending a second year in the ocean. "They can spawn multiple times, so after they spawn, they can return to the ocean. It's not like they have a body clock that they're going to expire if they don't return to the river at that moment," he said.

In a news release announcing the most recent restrictions on Washington's rivers, WDFW's Lothrop said he hopes anglers can understand that these are necessary steps for preserving future runs.

"These fish have one of the longest migrations for any stock in Washington, and face a wide array of obstacles on their way to the ocean and back to the spawning grounds," he said. "We're working diligently with our partners and stakeholders to holistically address all the factors impacting these runs."

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.