The Columbia River is one of America’s most iconic river systems. Both the famed Deschutes and Snake Rivers are tributaries and stretch hundreds of miles beyond. Yet, recent wild steelhead returns show the declines the Columbia River system is experiencing. In recent weeks, fish conservation groups in the Pacific Northwest began sounding the alarm for fishery managers and the public alike. To date this summer, wild steelhead returns at Bonneville Dam are on track to be the lowest since the dam was built in 1938. The diverse group recently sent a letter to the Oregon and Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissions demanding action to protect the increasingly vulnerable Columbia and Snake River salmonids.

The most recent data for the Columbia River’s steelhead paints a grim picture. For example, the number of steelhead (hatchery and wild) that have passed Bonneville Dam since April is 23,426 (as of August 16th). These returns are just 48% of what managers expected to return to the Columbia River System by that date, marking the second lowest steelhead run since 1984.

Wild steelhead returns look terrible too: “The 2021 wild run is 16% of the best 10-year average (77,613 wild fish during 2001-2010).” 

A couple weeks ago, representatives from The Conservation Angler, Native Fish Society, Wild Salmon Center, Trout Unlimited, Wild Steelhead Coalition and Wild Fish Conservancy sent a letter to Washington and Oregon hoping for action. The group advocated for immediate action to conserve the fewer returning fish.

“Additional actions are necessary to ensure the species’ survival and recovery. Abundance is so low that each wild fish is vitally important, especially in those streams where numbers are critically low. For wild B-run steelhead, a status quo fisheries gauntlet, and the current 70F degree-plus water throughout their migration corridor, are stressors that they simply cannot withstand. Failure to act now, as true stewards of this incredible resource for future generations, will result in these populations slipping even further
into collapse. We urge you to take a leadership role, to partner with neighboring Commissions throughout the Basin, and to unite in the implementation of actions to protect these vulnerable populations.”

Ultimately, there are too few fish that are facing far too many pressures; that combination seems to pose a dismal future for wild, Columbia and Snake River steelhead. The 2021 runs are shadows of their past levels, yet numerous fisheries (including harvest) remain open, water temperatures continue to present dangerous conditions, and dams still prevent efficient up and down-river migrations.

5 Rivers Columbia River Basin, Matteo Moretti

Oregon Governor, Kate Brown, recently penned an Op-Ed, titled “Working together, bold action can secure a thriving future for the Columbia Basin,” highlighting her support for continued litigation against Dam operations and Rep. Simpson’s $33 billion plan to remove the lower four Snake River dams. In it, she writes: “The status quo isn’t working. Iconic salmon and steelhead stocks continue to decline, with several now on the brink of extinction…My priority is to ensure we have robust, harvestable salmon and steelhead populations throughout the Columbia Basin for generations to come.”

Unfortunately, neither Washington or Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife appear to be concerned with the low returns. The recommendations listed in the above letter were not taken up. The Departments did not initially respond to requests for comment and next steps on the abysmal fish counts. However, since the date of publish have responded and highlighted their preseason actions to decrease impact, without acknowledging many reactive measures to address the historically poor run.

Joe DuPont, Fisheries Regional Manager, IDFG

“The lack of action is startling–and inconsistent,” said The Conservation Angler’s Executive Director David Moskowitz. “Oregon closed steelhead fishing on the North Umpqua River as fish counts indicated summer steelhead numbers were only 20% of normal–yet on the Columbia, returns are just as poor and the season is wide open–particularly in the tributaries and in the lower Columbia where commercial gillnets are undoubtably intercepting B-run steelhead.”

The Conservation Angler provides some tips so conservation-oriented anglers can minimize their impact this season:

    • Reduce your fishing effort
    • If you fish, do not fish when the water temperatures are higher than 66F
    • Use appropriate tackle to be able to land a wild steelhead quickly
    • Use small barbless hooks
    • Don’t use treble hooks
    • Don’t fish with bait
    • Don’t take a wild fish out of the water when you land them
    • Read about proper catch and release techniques at @KeepFishWet
    • Don’t buy tribal caught steelhead at the market or thru fishing site sales

At this point, everything surrounding wild salmonids in the Pacific Northwest feels like a broken record. Year after year, the future for wild salmon and steelhead looks bleaker and  bleaker. Granted, the ongoing La Nina oceanographic phenomena is certainly playing a role and having negative effects on these fish. Amid these poor ocean conditions and the intensifying effects of climate change, the response for salmonid managers in the PNW (and all US jurisdictions for that matter) seems clear: proactive and conservative management to account for these factors. Status quo, continued harvest, outdated dams are just non-sensical at this point–and only contributing to further declines and extinction.

Stay tuned for Columbia and Snake River steelhead news.

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