Columbia River Summer Steelhead: A Glimmer of Good News with Plenty of Caution in the Mix

The 2020 wild B-run Columbia River summer steelhead return was significantly upgraded in mid-September from the pre-season forecast of 1,400 “unclipped” or wild fish to 7,900 fish. While this increase is welcome – the revised return is still only 60% of the ten-year average. The combined hatchery and wild B-run return (the so-called Index) is forecasted to be 33,500 fish – well above the pre-season forecast. However, that number has been exceeded in 14 of the past 20 years. What also remains disturbing is the lack of accuracy of the forecast models used to set seasons in the Columbia.

The current return of hatchery and wild summer steelhead as of September 30 was 103,840 fish past Bonneville Dam (BON). This number is 49% of the current ten-year average (2010 – 2019). The run is the eighth lowest count in the past ten years. Let us compare 2020 to the largest wild summer steelhead return in the past twenty years (2009) when 162,803 wild steelhead had passed BON during the same time frame. That would put the 2020 wild return thus far at a mere 25% of the robust 2009 wild return.  Another point of comparison – the total 2020 hatchery and wild A and B-run will be barely larger than the average wild steelhead return between 2001 and 2010 (112,600 predicted verses 112,424 average)

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 R. Summer Steelhead Past Bonneville Dam (BON #): July 1 – September 30.

 BON #Current 10-yr Avg. (2010-2019)% current avg.Best 10-yr avg (2001-2010)% best Avg.
Total Steelhead103,840210,45049%377,52927.5%
Wild Steelhead40,81177,53453%108,97037.5%
2020 Analysis via Columbia River DART – UW Research

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

A significant number of steelhead 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 from the fish ladder at this facility for monitoring, tagging, tissue sampling and other measurements of the run. The sampling assists in analyzing the returning adult salmon and steelhead for information on stock structure and in creating a genetic stock identification (GSI) profile to supplement the dam window counts (visual stock identification – or VSI). According to the Sept. 16th report by the Technical Advisory Committee consisting of state, tribal and federal fishery scientists, over 800 steelhead had been “sampled” at the AFF between July 1 and mid-September – just under one percent of the run at that point. It is unknown how many of these fish are safely released or suffer loss of fitness or suffer passage mortality from the scientific handling. NOAA Fisheries has noted that the cumulative impact of all the research work throughout the basin merits concern considering the extensive handle of juvenile and adult steelhead.

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 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 Bonneville Dam and at a second AFF at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. 

Recent evaluation of unclipped hatchery origin steelhead numbers – especially in 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.

New Information Has Come to Light

On top of the recent “planned” and on-going non-marking fiasco, The Conservation Angler is awaiting results from queries to federal and state hatchery managers about unmarked and untagged hatchery salmon and steelhead releases from federal, state and tribal hatcheries based on the need for COVID-19 precautions during hatchery marking and release activities in the spring and summer – as well as details on several large releases of immature and unmarked hatchery salmon and steelhead resulting from wildfires that damaged and threatened facilities in several states.

The impacts of these actions prompted by emergency situations will play out in fishery season setting, ecological disturbance and successful spawning in natal rivers by wild fish for multiple years to come.

Last Minute Washington Rule Change

WDFW just announced an open season on steelhead in Drano Lake – a notorious location for intense steelhead fishing pressure on migrating wild steelhead – equivalent to “shooting fish in a barrel” according to concerned anglers.

Questions and Ponderable Pontifications

  • Anglers encounter more wild steelhead than hatchery steelhead despite wild fish typically 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-mile are needed to sustain and rebuild wild steelhead populations?
  • How many angler days’ worth of effort is expended on your favorite steelhead river over a season?
  • Do you ever have a hard time removing an unbarbed hook from a wild steelhead?
  • How much internal energy do wild steelhead have available for their migration and spawning?
  • How many times will a wild 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?

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

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