2020 Wild Steelhead Return Downgraded

Fire on the Mountain – August 2020

Summer – Fall Columbia River Report                                 September 8, 2020

The Sliding Scales

The 2020 wild A-run Columbia River summer steelhead return was just downgraded from the pre-season forecast of 85,900 fish to 80,300 fish – about a 7% slide. Dam counts and passage numbers are too low for the fishery agencies to update the B-run summer steelhead portion of the overall Columbia River summer steelhead return.

The current return of hatchery and wild summer steelhead as of September 7 was 82,589 fish past Bonneville Dam (BON). This number is 46% of the current ten-year average (2010 – 2019). The run is the seventh lowest count in the past ten years, which is a weird way of comparing 2020 to other years – it makes it seem high.  Let us compare to the largest wild summer steelhead return in the past twenty years (2009) when 151,571 wild steelhead had passed BON during the same time frame. That would put the 2020 wild return thus far at a mere 24% of that robust return.  The total 2020 hatchery and wild run will be well short of the average wild steelhead return between 2001 and 2010.

While comparing years to other years may not tell you everything, it can certainly tell you what you have lost over time.  Here is the 2020 steelhead return data in tabular form

Columbia River Summer Steelhead Past Bonneville Dam (BON #) between June 1 and September 7

 BON #Current 10-yr Avg.% current avg.Best 10-yr avg% best Avg.
Total Steelhead82,589178,34846.3%321,49926%
Wild Steelhead35,97870,66151%100,45836%
Data from UW Columbia River Research DART

The Tension Between Not Knowing Enough and Studying the Fish to Death

Another issue of concern is the number of steelhead that are handled at what is called the Adult Fish Facility (AFF) on the north shore of Bonneville Dam. Fishery managers divert a certain number of fish at this facility to do some monitoring, tagging, tissue sampling and other measurements of the run to assist in analyzing the returning adult salmon and steelhead. According to the most report of the Technical Advisory Committee consisting of state, tribal and federal fishery scientists, 743 steelhead had been “sampled” at the AFF between July 1 and August 27 – which is nearly one percent of the run thus far. It is unclear how many of these fish are safely released to continue on their way, or what the estimate is of mortality from the scientific handling. Considering all the research work throughout the basin, it is no wonder that NOAA Fisheries is concerned about the total impact of fisheries research on wild steelhead survival and recovery.

Finding A Mate

If you think online dating is hard, imagine being a Columbia Basin wild summer steelhead migrating past numerous dams, entering rivers with warm water, being fished over, and finally reaching your natal spawning waters only to find that while the competition for a date is rather low, that your chances for success are even lower.  Imagine the number of rivers that produce steelhead, the number of stream miles in each of these rivers, the diversity of spawning tributaries and the overall number of fish expected to safely reach each of these watersheds.  The Match.com algorithms will not provide much help to the luckiest and fittest wild steelhead returning to some of the wildest western rivers.

Finding A Mate Your Parents Approve – The Case for Marking All Hatchery Steelhead

For the past ten years, numerous steelhead hatchery programs in Columbia Basin have been releasing a portion of their hatchery juvenile steelhead smolts without clipping the adipose fin or making any other external marks. These fish are counted as “unclipped” which is used, in the absence of genetic analysis, as the surrogate to wild-origin fish that also have an intact adipose fin.  Fish counts at the dams report on the mark-rate using a visual stock identification (VSI) method, leaving the true and accurate count of wild-origin for later revision based on genetic stock identification (GSI) estimations that rely on the previously mentioned “sampling” occurring at BON and at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.

Recent evaluation of the counts of unclipped hatchery origin steelhead – especially past dams on the Snake River, show that the number of unclipped hatchery origin steelhead regularly eclipses the number of adipose-intact natural origin steelhead.

While it may be a relief to know that GSI can provide a strong “correction” to the VSI count, nothing is preventing these unclipped hatchery-origin steelhead from “escaping” the recreational fisheries and joining wild steelhead on the spawning beds. In the 2015 Five-Year ESA Review, NOAA Fisheries was unable to evaluate the impact of marked and unmarked hatchery steelhead on spawning grounds with wild steelhead in Idaho. We cannot measure nor manage you cannot evaluate, nor can you manage.

An Angler’s Self-Assessment

I recently spent 5 days on my favorite river.  I fished hard – the river was crowded, and most known runs had been fished multiple times – not terrible – the first pass does not always reward the early bird. I also I pushed myself to explore new water I had considered in the past – hoping an old dog can learn a new trick. We enjoyed cool water temps and were grateful for the river mouth angling sanctuaries at several Oregon tributaries. But there were mats of floating algal scum and the riparian condition poor – with invasive plants everywhere. We also wondered whether every wild fish could be encountered over the course of a season – and what impact that had on the future of the wild fish in our favorite river.

Questions and Ponderable Pontifications

  • Anglers encounter wild steelhead more than hatchery steelhead despite being outnumbered by returning adult hatchery steelhead by two or three-to-one.
  • While not all stream miles are created equal, how many steelhead-per-suitable spawning river miles are needed to sustain and rebuild wild steelhead populations?
  • How many angler days of effort are expended on your favorite steelhead river?
  • Do you ever have a hard time removing an unbarbed hook from a wild steelhead?
  • How many calories do wild steelhead have in-hand and available for migration and spawning?
  • How many times will a steelhead be hooked by an angler or chased by another predator?
  • How many angling encounters can a wild steelhead survive?
  • If Columbia River Basin wild steelhead returns do not increase, or continue to decrease, at what point will we, as passionate steelheaders, decide to not contribute to their decline?
  • How low must returns get before we make the decision to do something different than we now do?
  • What is the forecast? It feels smokey and unfocused.

Thank you for reading. Stay in touch, stay safe and do good work.

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