Idaho Closes Steelhead Harvest
by Roger Phillips
Fish and Game has only closed all steelhead fishing (harvest and catch and release) once in the past 43 years.
An extremely small number of steelhead returning to Idaho so far has prompted the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to close all rivers to harvest for the fall season, beginning Aug. 17. Catch-and-release fishing remains open.
Since 1987, all wild fish have been required to be returned to the river. This year, due to the low numbers, hatchery fish must also be returned.
Steelhead season on the Salmon River is normally Sept. 1 to April 30, three per day, nine in possession, with a catch-and-release season Aug. 1-31.
The department stated in a press release that through Aug. 14, about 400 steelhead crossed Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, about 30 miles downstream from Lewiston--a small fraction of the 10-year average of about 6,000.
The department stated that closing harvest of hatchery steelhead while leaving it open for catch-and-release fishing will help ensure that enough broodstock return to steelhead hatcheries to produce the next generation of fish.
Though only a fraction of the steelhead run has crossed Lower Granite Dam, fisheries managers are tracking the run as it moves upstream.
Historic run data show that by Aug. 15, about half the fish should have already crossed Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, the first dam where the fish are counted. Through Aug. 14, only 3,900 Idaho steelhead had crossed Bonneville.
The department stated that fisheries managers are carefully watching steelhead returns, and if there's an unexpected increase, harvest can be reopened, but at this point, that's very unlikely. Washington and Oregon have also restricted steelhead harvest for anglers in the Columbia River to protect Idaho-bound fish.
"We realize steelhead anglers will be disappointed, and many will choose not to fish this fall as a result of the decision to close harvest," said Lance Hebdon, Fish and Game's anadromous fish manager. "We will continue to monitor hatchery and wild steelhead returns as the run continues to determine if changes are needed."
Fisheries managers say they're aware some people are concerned about the possible effects of allowing catch-and-release angling on a small return.
"Based on our experience, catch-and-release fishing has proven to be an effective conservation tool, and we've been able to allow it in the past while still protecting a below-average return of wild fish," Hebdon said. "We realize that catch and release is not zero-impact, but it is very low impact. With the expected reduction in angler participation, we are confident that the protection is there. We have documented populations rebounding even with a limited number of spawners."
The department said it's important that anglers practicing catch-and-release treat all steelhead with care and release them with minimal handling.
Every year's run of adults is produced by at least two years of outmigrating young fish, which provide a buffer during years of poor returns.
Idaho's steelhead runs typically fluctuate from year to year, but, the department noted, what makes this year unusual is an exceptionally small hatchery return at the same time as a small wild run. The 1996 steelhead run, for example, had only 7,600 wild fish, but they combined with 79,000 hatchery fish.
Fish and Game has only closed all steelhead fishing (harvest and catch and release) once in the past 43 years. Harvest restrictions and length limits have been implemented in the past for the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon rivers to adjust for low returns.
All salmon and steelhead runs to Idaho this year have been below average, and small runs were forecast based on early indicators last year.
Portions of this steelhead run migrated to the Pacific Ocean in 2015, which was a low-water year with early hot weather that produced hazardous river conditions for young fish leaving Idaho. Ocean productivity was also poor that year, which persisted in 2016, and made conditions even more difficult for fish.
The conservation group Idaho Rivers United contended that the abysmal steelhead count is one more piece of evidence that dams on the lower Snake River in Washington need to be removed to allow all anadromous fish species to recover.
"It's unconscionable that industry and government agencies claim steelhead are doing fine, or even recovering," IRU Executive Director Kevin Lewis said in a press release. "The actual numbers speak to a very different reality. These fish, listed as threatened in 1997, are balanced on the brink of extinction.
"It's important to point out, too, that all of these numbers, and especially the 10-year averages, aren't even close to what scientists would consider recovery. For steelhead, chinook and sockeye, we've seen consecutive years of declines that call into serious question the sustainability of the runs with the lower Snake River dams still in place."
While closing the harvest for adipose-clipped steelhead could put a damper on fall fisheries, an abundant run of fall Chinook returning to Idaho will provide some good fishing opportunity, the department noted. The forecast is for 27,000 Chinook, and those fish are now arriving.
Fall Chinook fishing season opens today, Aug. 18, and anglers can harvest six adult Chinook daily, and there's no bag limit on "jack" fall Chinook smaller than 24 inches.
Fisheries Managers Forecast 'Unprecedentedly Low' Summer Steelhead by George Plaven, East Oregonian, 5/22/17
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