2018 Columbia River Summer – Fall Migration Update: September 30, 2018

In what may be a precedent-setting action on August 24th, Oregon and Washington “closed the Columbia to steelhead fishing” (their words) as the initially optimistic 2018 forecast for upriver summer steelhead of 182,400 summer steelhead was revised sharply down to 110,300 fish (a 40% reduction in the forecast), reduced again on August 28 to 96,500 (another 8%), and now, just reduced an additional 4% further to 92,800 steelhead expected to pass Bonneville Dam – half of the initial forecast.

Retention Closure is not a closure

The fact of the matter is that anglers were still fishing on the Columbia River, as the regulations merely prohibited “retention” of any steelhead (hatchery or wild). Catch and release fishing for steelhead was not prohibited, and with fall Chinook salmon migrating throughout the Columbia, sport anglers were still fishing. Additionally, a mainstem lower river gillnet fishery had been authorized during that same August week in the river below Bonneville, and wild steelhead with a later run timing (like B-run steelhead) that may have been also delaying their migration due to warm waters below Bonneville Dam, were likely intercepted in that fishery.  This commercial fishery’s impact on wild steelhead will likely never be known as the on-board observer program in place during the 2017 non-treaty fishery was only voluntary for the gillnet fleet and the commercial fishers refused to host any.  It is unconscionable that there was and will be no M&E on this fishery – the only consolation is that the non-treaty commercial fleet has received only five mainstem fishing days so far in all of 2018 season.

However the gillnets are not the only impact on wild steelhead, with daily reports of many sport-fleet boats at the cold water refugia from the Cowlitz and Lewis Rivers, the migrating wild steelhead had no sanctuary there. These fisheries should also be subject to robust creel surveys and monitoring at boat ramps and landings along the Columbia.

Additionally, Tribal fishers were taking wild steelhead in several cool-water refugia such as Drano Lake (WA) and Herman Creek (OR).

Everything Changed on September 11

The Columbia late-summer and Fall fisheries all changed when Oregon and Washington announced that ALL salmon and steelhead fishing in the Columbia from Buoy 10 to McNary Dam would close on September 12. The chinook salmon passage was dropping and the run forecast was downgraded to 150,000 upriver bright fall chinook past Bonneville. 

It is critically important to note that when the agencies limit “retention” of any particular fish, fishing for and retaining salmon and other fish is often still legal. Agencies consider the “retention closure an effective conservation measures because they believe it lowers fishing pressure. However, because wild steelhead must be released unharmed under existing rules anyway, the steelhead “closure” acts more as a conservation measure for hatchery steelhead than real, absolute protection for wild steelhead.

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Current Salmon and Steelhead Migration Numbers from Bonneville Dam:

These numbers below reflect counts through Sunday September 30, 2018. 

Sobering indeed.  Please feel free to share with your networks.

7/1 – 9/30 for summer steelhead at Bonneville

Total Steelhead = 86,566 / 305,244 (10-yr. avg.) = 28.4% of the TYA

Wild Steelhead = 27,449 / 102,322 (10-yr. avg.) = 26.8% of the TYA

Spoiler Alert: For those who still think 2018 is a better year for steelhead than 2017…..

There were MORE steelhead past Bonneville Dam on this date in 2017, which was a very poor return, particularly for wild B-run steelhead.

Comparing 2017 and 2018 total hatchery and wild steelhead passage at Bonneville Dam:

-September 30, 2017 passage was 107,073 steelhead.

-2018 passage is 86,566 steelhead.

For those counting at home, 20,507 more hatchery and wild steelhead passed in 2017.

Wild steelhead are not doing quite as poorly, though the overall number is very low.

-2017 wild steelhead passage was 31,150 fish.

-2018 wild steelhead passage is at 27,449.

The result is that 3,701 more wild steelhead passed Bonneville Dam in 2017 than in 2018.

Early Snake River Counts:

Lower Granite Dam Counts for Steelhead as of September 30, 2018:

Total hatchery + wild steelhead= 19,826 / 87,406 TYA = 22.7% of the TYA

Wild steelhead = 4,674 / 23,272 TYA = 20.1% of the TYA

The Technical Advisory Committee to the Columbia River Compact released their first update of the wild B-run steelhead. Their prediction is for a reduced wild B-run of 2,600 fish (a 23% reduction in the wild B-runs for 2018). However, the predicted return of hatchery B-run steelhead was only reduced by 100 fish and therefore, since the combined hatchery and wild B-run forecast is over 20,000 total, the allowed Treaty Tribal harvest rate will remain at 15% (though they estimate they will harvest fewer).

Also of concern, over 18% of the unclipped steelhead passing Bonneville Dam may be of hatchery origin and will be allowed to spawn with natural-origin steelhead in Idaho and Oregon tributaries of the Snake and Clearwater. 

Fall Chinook (as of Sept. 30) Passing Bonneville Dam:  

Fall Chinook are considered those passing Bonneville after August 1. Jack chinook are sexually mature male chinook returning from the ocean after only one year and are considered a predictor of the following year’s likely run of 3, 4 and 5 year-old adult chinook.

Fall chinook = 167,778 adults (compared to TYA of 500,427 adult chinook = 33.5% of the TYA

Jacks = 27,428 jacks (compared to TYA of 77,157 jack chinook) = 35.6% of the TYA

The 2018 pre-season forecast for fall chinook past Bonneville was 253,100 adults, which if met would be 47.3% of the TYA. As mentioned, the chinook run was downgraded to 150,000 adults – a predicted number now surpassed by the actual counts, though still a very low return.

Last Words

Despite the initial improved forecasts and the positive spin from state fish agencies in the winter and spring, 2018 is not going to be a good year for Columbia and Snake River wild steelhead and wild salmon.  The Conservation Angler appreciates the sanctuary provided for wild salmon and steelhead at the Deschutes – Columbia confluence and in the lower one-mile of the Deschutes. We also support the “retention closures” in the Columbia River.  Nevertheless, the low numbers of wild steelhead and the warm main-stem water temperatures warranted the Deschutes River Sanctuary and provided ample reason to take the same action in other cool water refugia downstream, as well as to apply more effective conservation measures across all fisheries.

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