YAKIMA – An icon of the Pacific Northwest, the steelhead, is facing mixed news on the Columbia Basin.
It’s projected that fewer than 131,000 of the fish will come through Bonneville Dam this year. That’s the lowest number in more than three decades and represents a fall of at least 45,000 for the third straight year.
On the Yakima River, about 1,600 steelhead were counted at Prosser Dam for the year ending June 30 – less than half the number the year before and the lowest number in more than a decade.
On the other hand, however, the declines come amid signs of promising habitat improvement and better environmental conditions for a tenacious species that has overcome numerous obstacles over the last century.
Biologists primarily blame the recent declines on droughts in 2014 and 2015, along with warming ocean temperatures. But the warming has dissipated for now, and high waters from a relatively wet winter and spring give hope for recovery of the resilient steelhead, which is the state’s official fish.
“There’s definitely a level of concern,” Yakama Nation research scientist Chris Frederiksen said. “I think the level of concern is somewhat warranted, but can be tempered until we see what happens in the next two to four years.”
Yakima success story
The steelhead is a rainbow trout that spends some of its youth in fresh water, migrates to the sea, then returns to fresh water to spawn. Typically between 8 and 11 pounds, they can in some cases grow to 40 pounds. Like salmon, their survival has been challenged by dams, low water flows and a host of other barriers to their journey between the Pacific Ocean and fresh water spawning grounds sometimes hundreds of miles away.
Habitat improvements make the Yakima Basin something of a success story. Steelhead here haven’t declined as much as in most regions, said Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead initiative organizer Nick Chambers.
“Things changed in the ocean and also there’s been a lot of habitat work and other things that have started to improve our run,” said Yakama Nation Fisheries data manager Bill Bosh. “If we can get 1,600 (of the fish to go up Yakima River) out of 130,000 at Bonneville, that’s not so bad. But certainly we’d much rather see the 6,000.”
Tribal efforts through the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan focused on restoring historic flows in the Satus and Toppenish Creek areas. Woody debris plantings and meadow restoration helped increase spawning habitat in streams, while other efforts on the upper Yakima River included small dam removals.
There’s also the Yakama Nation’s kelt reconditioning program, which collects female steelhead at Prosser Dam and strengthens them for their journey to the Pacific. Hatchery manager Joe Blodgett said because of the recent small run and high water that allowed many steelhead to easily swim past the dam this spring, only about 200 were collected compared to almost 1,000 in other years.
The migrating fish normally stay in the program for about six months after spring spawning, minimizing human interaction and the possibility of weakening the genetics of wild steelhead, which Bosh said accounts for 98 percent of the run.
Steelhead habitat on tribal lands in Toppenish Creek and Satus Creek have gotten the most attention and improvement, while Bosh said the tribe would like to see more work done above Roza Dam. He said Yakima steelhead should also benefit from upcoming projects, such as restoration of floodplain between Union Gap and Selah Gap as well as the removal of Nelson Dam on the Naches River.
“It would just make it easier to get above there, but fish do, and steelhead maybe more than others,” Bosh said. “They’re able to jump that dam.”
State wildlife officials encourage the fishing of walleye, smallmouth bass and channel catfish to reduce predators for steelfish, especially from Union Gap to McNary Dam near the Tri-Cities. Those non-native species can be dangerous to steelhead and low flows tend to magnify the effect by causing a “feeding frenzy,” said Frederiksen.
Reason for optimism
Steelhead repeatedly show the ability to overcome dams and other obstacles to reach spawning areas and have earned a reputation as fish always willing to put up a fight, so it’s no surprise they can be quite resilient in the face of peril.
A phenomenon known as “The Blob” that warmed coastal waters in the Pacific Ocean appeared to dissipate last year, although Chambers noted temperatures can be tough to predict. Bosh agreed, saying those conditions generally go in cycles of 20 to 30 years, so it’s possible the recent change could indicate the start of another negative cycle. That would be good news for Alaskan Basin steelhead and salmon but bad for those in the Pacific Northwest.
Frederiksen noted although uncertainty remains regarding ocean conditions, a good out migration in 2016 provided a welcome relief after two years of drought.
But no matter how favorable the conditions, Chambers said recovery will be a long, difficult process in places like the Snake River and the upper Columbia, in part because management practices generally aren’t conservative enough. He noted although it’s still early for this year’s summer runs, many appear to already be coming in below projections.
“I think if we don’t account for some of the uncertainty that we have in our run forecast, then it will potentially jeopardize our recovery,” Chambers said.
Wildlife Department regional fish program manager John Easterbrooks acknowledged conservation can be difficult given the popularity of steelhead fishing in Washington, and Chambers said the recently implemented regulations represent a promising step forward. Better cooperation between groups such as the Wildlife Department and tribes, according to both Bosh and Anderson, offers more hope for the steelhead population.
“I feel pretty optimistic that it’s going to tick back up pretty well,” Anderson said.
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