LEWISTON – Steelhead are tough, resilient fish, and when it comes to providing regular hatchery-based fishing opportunities, have proven to be largely reliable over the years.
But they haven’t been doing so well of late. Returns of Endangered Species Act-protected wild steelhead have long been a concern and the past five-plus years have been especially rough on them. The hatchery fish that drive fisheries from Astoria, Oregon, to Kooskia and Riggins in Idaho have faltered as well.
Not every year has been alarming. The 2022 return of steelhead surprised fisheries managers. But the fish are expected to tank again this year and fisheries managers are expecting one of the lowest returns, if not the lowest, on record.
So what ails them? No one knows for sure.
There are obvious culprits like the dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and the predators that take their meals in the reservoirs.
Then there are ocean conditions, a major driver of salmon and steelhead runs in general. Monitoring by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries indicates there was a cluster of tough years between 2015 and 2019. Sea surface temperatures were elevated, upwelling was down and food was scarce. Salmon and steelhead numbers took a hit.
But things started ticking upward in 2020 and improved vastly in 2021. Chinook, sockeye and coho benefited, but the boost to steelhead was less apparent. Their behavior once in the ocean may explain why.
When steelhead smolts hit the Columbia River estuary, they tend to keep swimming, making a beeline for the open ocean hundreds of miles offshore. That is different from coho, sockeye and chinook that stay relatively close to the West Coast of North America. The zone within a few hundred miles of the coast tends to be influenced by upwelling, the movement of cool water from depth to the surface.
That is less true farther out where steelhead spend their time in the ocean.
“They use the high seas and open ocean more and are much more surface oriented,” said John Cassinelli of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise. “We continue to have some pretty warm ocean conditions and marine heat waves setting up every year. We think those are contributing to poor ocean survival.
“Steelhead are more surface oriented and the surface continues to be warm so we are continuing to see not ideal ocean conditions for steelhead,” he added.
That is one reason John McMillan, a Port Angeles, Washington-based biologist for the Conservation Angler, is worried about the species across its range. Steelhead spend most of their time within 15 feet of the surface.
“That is the part of the ocean that has been prone to marine heatwaves even as some closer-to-shore ocean conditions improved over the past few years,” he said, while noting those improved conditions may be reversing this year. “Climate change models all say the one part (of the ocean) we are influencing the fastest is the upper water column.”
Managers are increasingly concerned about another trend. For more than a decade, the fish have followed alternating up and down years, perhaps suffering low survival when pink salmon, that have long followed an every-other-year pattern of abundance, are high in numbers.
“We don’t have any hard evidence to support that, but there is definitely a correlation between large pink salmon runs and what appears to be low survival of steelhead when they enter the ocean,” Cassinelli said.
Pinks are the most abundant salmon species in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S., Russia and Japan all operate pink salmon hatcheries.
The forecast of just 910 wild B-run steelhead returning to Idaho this year is troubling to fisheries managers and anglers alike. Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation calls it a tragedy.
“Those are fish that are found nowhere else on the planet and we have less than 1,000 coming back,” he said. “If the alarm bells aren’t ringing now, I don’t know what does it.”
His group supports Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s concept that would help steelhead as well as salmon by breaching the four lower Snake River dams while investing in affected communities and industries.
But Brooks also backs continued efforts to restore degraded habitat and reduce predation while improving management of hatcheries and harvest to ensure wild steelhead are protected. He’d like other members of Idaho’s congressional delegation to join Simpson and noted Sen. Jim Risch is sponsoring legislation to retain the dams.
“It just kind of shows you how unserious Risch is about the crisis at hand, about the industry and culture associated with it,” he said. “If we have restrictions on the season, it’s going to hit the smallest rural towns the hardest.”
Salmon and steelhead fishing contributes an estimated $8.6 million per month to north central Idaho’s economy, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. When the fall steelhead season on the Clearwater River was shut down in 2019, the department estimated it would lead to the loss of 43 jobs and $1 million in wages. At the time, coho and fall chinook fishing remained open on the Clearwater and steelhead fishing was open on the Snake, Salmon and Grande Ronde rivers.
Restrictions may be in store. Oregon is telling anglers to expect some temporary and geographically targeted closures on the Columbia River as steelhead are migrating upstream.
Washington is also signaling that restrictive regulations are likely and Idaho is considering them.
David Moskowitz, executive director of the Conservation Angler, is calling on Washington to follow Oregon’s lead and implement restrictions, such as closing fishing near the mouths of Columbia River tributaries.
“We feel like every action we can take, we should take,” he said. “There are plenty of places in the Columbia where you can catch salmon where you aren’t going to catch many steelhead.
“We just think the numbers are so low, why are we not doing everything we can?”