Columbia River 2018 Wild Steelhead Migration Update

On August 3, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission directed the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department (ODFW) to implementing protective angling regulations that provided a migratory sanctuary for wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River and in the lower mile of the Deschutes River. 

The Deschutes River plume creates a cold water refuge for wild salmon and steelhead. The fishing closure would remain in force until the Columbia River water temperatures dropped below 68f.

“Very low numbers of several ESA-listed wild salmon and steelhead populations returning to the Columbia and Snake River are facing conditions adverse to their success in reaching their natal rivers.” said Bill Bakke, Director of Science and Conservation for The Conservation Angler.

“While current regulations require many wild fish to be released unharmed, the lethal and sub-lethal effects of encounters in the fisheries (both indirect and direct) can and does have an impact on their fitness, survival and productivity.” said David Moskowitz, Executive Director of The Conservation Angler.

“The very low wild summer steelhead run-size and the extreme heat and its effect on water temperatures really make this sanctuary area a critical conservation action for the entire Columbia River above Bonneville Dam.” Said Moskowitz

In early August, the upriver Wild steelhead past Bonneville Dam totaled 14,827 fish which is only 28% of the ten-year average. The current 2018 return of wild steelhead is less than 1,000 fish above 2017’s low return which was the second lowest return of wild steelhead since 1999.

The Conservation Angler has spearheaded efforts to protect wild steelhead and salmon in these areas over the past two years and has worked closely with Wild Fish Conservancy, Native Fish Society, Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited in urging Oregon, Washington and Idaho to adopt conservation-oriented measures to protect low numbers of wild steelhead returning to the Columbia Basin.

While this may seem like a modest step, it is in-fact a very important action that should provide real conservation benefits for wild steelhead as well as salmon (wild upriver bright fall chinook are also predicted to be returning in lower abundance this summer and fall).  

The ODFW News Release issued on Tuesday is here:

Here is a link to the map of the actual sanctuary:

While this action represents just a small first step in the process of getting a network of cool water sanctuaries on the Columbia, it does indicate the commission’s willingness to make tough decisions on the issues regardless of the staff’s lack of support. All of us that have worked on this issue over the past decade deserve some of the credit for the commission’s action. 

But our work on this issue is not finished!

As noted in the news release, ODFW is moving forward with a broader temporary rule for the Columbia, and there have been discussions about the need for a statewide rule.  Furthermore, we will have to ensure that WDFW begins playing catch-up on this issue. Keep in mind that the two Commissions will be meeting jointly in November.

We hope that all can continue to work on this issue, and be prepared to mobilize members to participate in public hearings once they are announced. 

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commissioners deserve a great deal of credit and thanks for their focus on this critical wild steelhead conservation measure.

Background Information Provided to the Oregon on August 3

Oregon’s action provides a measure of protection to wild salmon and steelhead during their migration to natal rivers by establishing sanctuaries in areas of thermal refuge. 


Adequate information existed of the location, significance and use of cold water refugia by wild steelhead. The river conditions and wild fish migration status creates a situation inordinately impacting wild steelhead and wild chinook in 2018.

Steelhead migration is different than other salmon and their reliance and use of thermal gradients is well documented. Steelhead and salmon using thermal gradients are vulnerable to fishing-related encounters.

Areas where thermal gradients exist in the Oregon Waters and in waters concurrently managed in the Columbia River are well known by anglers and fishers and are also definable and enforceable. In fact, current Oregon Administrative Rules Identify “sanctuaries” where commercial fishing is not permitted and these areas are well-defined and well understood by the public, and are susceptible to effective enforcement.

Snake River ESA Recovery Plans directly state that they will not recover spring chinook or summer steelhead, yet marine and lower and mid-river fisheries continue to directly harvest these species. Without escapement criteria, recovery of ESA-protected fish is not possible.  No northwest state has river-specific management criteria regimes to secure river-specific abundance, measureable spawning escapement or egg deposition criteria for wild Steelhead by natal river for wild steelhead, nor is there a plan to establish criteria or monitor attainment.

The already-administratively designated river-mouth sanctuaries where commercial fishing is prohibited closely overlap with the proposed thermal refugia and tributary sanctuaries where recreational angling would be prohibited, and they are well known to the public, easily identified and already described in existing administrative rule language.

Environmental and Biological Conditions Exist to Support Creation of an Angling Sanctuary in 2018:

Upriver Summer Steelhead: July 1 – August 6, 2018

-The pre-season forecast was 182,400 total steelhead passing Bonneville Dam, including 48,200 total wild steelhead (the initial forecast was only 48% of the most recent ten-year average of wild steelhead).

Total summer steelhead at the time of the Commission Action: 33,198 (28.2% of the ten-year average)

Total Wild summer steelhead at that time: 14,827 (28.8% of the ten-year average)

On August 6, 2018, there were only 954 more wild steelhead past Bonneville than in 2017, yet there was

not a single additional conservation measure in place to help reduce the encounter rate on wild steelhead such as was adopted in 2017.

Columbia River Water Temperatures: August 6, 2018

Mainstem Dam Temperature Gauges are on beacons floating between 4.5 and 7.5 feet deep (USGS Info)

McNary Dam: 21.7c (71.06f)

John Day Dam: 22.6c (72.68f)

The Dalles Dam: 22.8c (73.04f)

Bonneville Dam: 22.4c (72.32f)

Willamette River into the Columbia: 24.4c (75.92f)

Port of Longview: 22.7c (72.9f)

Deschutes River at Moody (1 mile upstream of Columbia confluence):  21c to 18.3c (69.26 to 64.94f)

The temp sensor at this site is installed about a foot or so below the current water surface. At this site the river is pretty well mixed so temp readings are pretty consistent by depth and across the river. This may not be the case at other sites where influences from other streams or springs may affect how well mixed the temperature and other constituents may be. We verify this by taking temperature readings at various points across the river and confirming the temp at the stream-gage is representative of the mean cross section temperature (USGS Info).

PGE Deschutes River Flows:

PGE begins releasing colder, cleaner water from the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook sometime in the first 18 days of August, dropping the Deschutes River temperatures into the mid-60s (62 to 68f). This has been happening since 2010, though it was only on July 30, 2011 that a water temperature gauge was first operational on the lower Deschutes. Temperatures are decreased for the benefit of fall chinook.

The following dates are all in August except as noted:

2011 – temperature drops to 68f occurred on the 7th and the 28th

2012 –temperature drops to 68f occurred on the 18th

2013—temperature drops to 68f occurred on the 3rd and the 10th

2014—temperature drops to 68f occurred on the 2nd and the 20th

2015—temperature drops to 68f occurred on the 15th

2016—temperature drops to 68f occurred on July 30th

2017—temperature drops to 68f occurred on the 13th

Recent ODFW Press Releases in 2018:

a. Handling Fish in Warm Weather

b. Umpqua Emergency Closure

c. North Umpqua Afternoon Angling Closure

d. Fish Handling Tips for the Umpqua

For more Information:

David A. Moskowitz

The Conservation Angler


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