Poor Steelhead Returns will Likely Impact
by Eric Barker
Check the fish counts at Lower Granite Dam and the steelhead run looks depressing, but at nearly three times the size of last year's run there is at least a hint of silver lining.
Look downstream and the silver lining is swallowed by dark brooding storm clouds. You might even spot a funnel cloud.
The 2017 year-to-date totals for steelhead at Bonneville Dam overtook the 2018 numbers recently. That is not good news.
Last year was one of the worst ever for steelhead bound for tributaries of the Columbia River above Bonneville Dam including the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers in Idaho and the Grande Ronde in Washington and Oregon. This year is likely to be worse.
Anglers and fisheries managers weren't expecting a big rebound this fall but they hoped, at the very least, to see a modest increase in steelhead numbers compared to the 2017 run. But barring a late surge of A-run steelhead or a better-than-expected performance from the B-run, this steelhead run could be the worst in decades.
Last week, fisheries officials at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shut down steelhead fishing on the Columbia River. That move was taken after an official downgrade of the steelhead forecast. Prior to the season, state, tribal and federal fisheries managers estimated a combined return of A-run and B-run steelhead to hit 182,000. Last week, that estimate was downgraded to about 110,000 and then trimmed again to 96,500. That number includes a projected return of 69,000 adipose fin-clipped hatchery steelhead and 27,500 wild and some unclipped hatchery steelhead.
"It's close to a 50 percent reduction," said Alan Byrne, Idaho Department of Fish and Game's anadromous fish manager in Boise.
If the prediction holds, it would be the lowest steelhead return since 1978 and the first time since then the run has failed to register 100,000 steelhead at Bonneville. For perspective, last year's meager run was just more than 113,000 there.
Through Tuesday, 54,700 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam. Last year at the same time, the count was more than 68,800.
Fisheries managers are mulling what actions they might take. In the face of similar numbers last fall, some rivers were closed to catch-and-keep steelhead fishing and size restrictions were adopted on others to protect B-run fish. Some of those restrictions were eased following a late surge by A-run fish.
Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for Idaho Fish and Game in Lewiston, said he wants to give the run a little more time before taking any action. So far this year, fewer than 2,000 steelhead have passed Lower Granite Dam, and there is only one harvest season open in Idaho -- a short section of the lower river below Memorial Bridge in Lewiston. That will change on Saturday when the Snake and Salmon rivers open to catch-and-keep fishing.
Idaho fisheries officials have drafted possible changes to the season but are waiting to make a final decision said Chris Sullivan, Idaho Fish and Game's salmon and steelhead harvest manager in Boise.
"We are looking out for our brood stock and our natural fish populations. We need to make sure our impacts to both of those via any steelhead fishery are manageable," Sullivan said. "We are considering options to reduce those impacts. It's important to note we still have some time left in the run. Things could change, and our outlooks could change, in a matter of days if the run improves."
Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Spokane, said he is coordinating with other managers in his department and colleagues in Oregon and Idaho about possible moves.
Right now Donley said there are too few fish in the river for anglers to make an impact on hatchery brood stock collection or on the number of wild fish bound for spawning grounds.
"There really aren't any fish there," he said. "Guys can go out and scratch around but …"
Another poor steelhead run is likely to have economic ripples for businesses that depend on anglers spending money on fishing trips. For Randy Krall, owner of Camp, Cabin and Home in Lewiston, the fickleness of salmon and steelhead runs over the last few years has prompted a change in his business strategy. Krall is slowly eliminating his inventory of fishing tackle and concentrating more on items like high-end barbecues, coolers, home heating stoves and propane accessories.
"You just can't afford to stock the merchandise when there are no seasons," he said. "Our business has never been better. Our business is having a record year. But tackle doesn't even play a part of it anymore."
He is more worried about the economic fallout in small towns like Orofino, Riggins, Salmon and Kamiah.
"They really depend on tourism from the fish stuff," Krall said.
ONE STEELHEAD PER DAY LIMIT IN EFFECT UNTIL NEXT MONTHRelated Sites:
Responding to poor steelhead numbers, Idaho, Washington and Oregon have slashed daily bag limits on the Snake River and its tributaries.
All three states cut the daily bag limit for hatchery steelhead from three fish per day to one. Fisheries officials are responding to poor fish counts at dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and a new forecast released last week that calls for just 96,500 steelhead to return to Bonneville Dam. If the prediction is accurate, it would be the worst return since 1978.
Chris Sullivan, salmon and steelhead harvest coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Boise, said the Idaho bag limit will remain in place through Oct. 14. By that time, Sullivan said, the state's fisheries managers will have enough information to decide if the bag limits should be revised.
"We will be assessing whether or not to continue under that framework, or, we could be looking at additional restrictions," Sullivan said.
From June 1 through last Wednesday, only about 59,000 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. During last year's poor steelhead run, more than 72,000 steelhead had been counted there during the same time period.
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