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Recovery Efforts Underway for Endangered Steelhead in Upper Columbia River Basin

Category: Newsletter Articles | Posted by: Jonathan | 1/6/12 | Comments: 0

Summary: Anglers are utilized to harvest excess hatchery steelhead to protect endangered wild stocks.  Analysis of catch data from the Upper Columbia reflects the outcomes of these efforts for the 2010-11 fishery season.
Methow Steelhead
Methow River steelhead

By Chris Ringlee

Popular steelhead fisheries occur on the Upper Columbia (UC) and its tributaries during the fall and into the winter for fish that belong to the Upper Columbia Distinct Population Segment (DPS). Upper Columbia DPS steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act as “Threatened” and have had this designation since January 5, 2006. Prior to this, UC steelhead had been listed as “Endangered” since August 18, 1997. The Upper Columbia steelhead DPS includes all naturally-spawned anadromous steelhead populations below natural and man made impassable barriers on streams in the Columbia River Basin upstream from the Yakima River to the US‐Canada border, as well as six artificial propagation programs: the Wenatchee River, Wells Hatchery (in the Methow and Okanogan Rivers), Winthrop National Fish Hatchery, Omak Creek and the Ringold steelhead hatchery programs.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) implemented emergency fishing season openings on the Upper Columbia and tributaries.  These emergency rules have created steelhead fisheries throughout the Upper Columbia to remove excess hatchery steelhead from the systems. It is important to understand that hatchery steelhead are also listed under the ESA and are used in the recovery efforts of wild fish, so not all hatchery steelhead have an adipose clip.

WDFW suggests that 50-65% of hatchery fish are adipose clipped in the Upper Columbia. WDFW and other agencies can distinguish hatchery origin fish through the use of Coded Wire Tagging, a small metal tag placed in the head of juvenile hatchery fish. Hatchery fish can also be determined through the use of scale analysis since their life history differs from wild steelhead in overwintering and growth patterns. WDFW regulations for the Upper Columbia areas require that ALL adipose clipped steelhead to be retained, making it illegal to release hatchery steelhead.

In the total Upper Columbia steelhead fishery during the 2010-2011 season, an estimated 23,910 anglers fished a total of 93,504 fishing hours and caught 11,610 steelhead; of which 5,219 were adipose-absent fish of hatchery origin, 3,937 were adipose-present hatchery origin, and 2,454 were natural-origin steelhead. In the Wenatchee River, an estimated 2,095 anglers fished 5,758 hours and caught a total of 484 steelhead; of which 97 were adipose-absent, 161 were adipose-present hatchery, and 226 were natural origin. In the Methow, an estimated 9,125 anglers fished 41,592 hours and caught a total of 5,880 steelhead; of which 2,857 were adipose-absent, 1,953 were adipose present-hatchery, and 1,070 were natural origin.

In the steelhead fishery above Wells Dam, which includes the main stem Columbia, Methow, Okanogan, and Similkameen Rivers, an estimated 4,779 adipose fin clipped steelhead were removed by anglers. This represents a 64.5% reduction of the estimated 7,411 adipose fin- clipped hatchery steelhead in the system, which were observed passing Wells Dam during the season.

In the steelhead fishery from Priest Rapids to Wells Dam, which includes the main stem Columbia, Wenatchee, and Entiat Rivers, an estimated 396 adipose fin clipped steelhead were removed. This represents a 9.3% reduction of the estimated 4,263 adipose fin clipped steelhead assigned to the main stem Columbia, Wenatchee, and Entiat populations. WDFW uses anglers as a facet of steelhead management through the removal of hatchery fish. While high interception rates occur further upstream, this Wenatchee area lacks significant hatchery steelhead removal. This is one area of concern for the WSC as the Wenatchee receives substantial hatchery plants equaling 474,500 smolt in 2010.

The fishery opportunity and harvest of hatchery steelhead in the Upper Columbia has impacts on wild steelhead. The overall impacts of the Upper Columbia River and tributary steelhead fisheries on natural-origin steelhead was estimated at 136 wild fish based on a 5% hooking mortality. This represents 64.2 % of the allowable natural-origin impacts, which is less than the 212-fish mortality figure estimated during the October 2010 in-season forecast based on ESA recovery guidelines.

NOAA uses a 5% catch and release (C&R) mortality figure for estimating mortality associated with the release of wild steelhead. WDFW currently uses an estimated 10% C&R mortality figure applied to steelhead fisheries in the state. The WSC applauds the WDFW for implementing the Wind River summer steelhead Mortality Study to help define actual C&R impacts, and urges the WDFW to implement other studies regarding C&R mortality.

Wild steelhead counts continue to hover below established goals.  Natural-origin fish escapement* in 2011 to the Wenatchee and Methow Rivers was estimated at 1,345 and 1,773 respectively. The escapement goal for the Methow is 2,300 and the NOAA recovery goal is 2,500 adults; while the escapement goal for the Wenatchee is 3,000 and the NOAA recovery goal is 2,500 adults.

Regarding enforcement of steelhead protections, the WSC applauds the effort shown by WDFW and NOAA in these Upper Columbia steelhead fisheries. Enforcement of regulations protecting ESA-listed Upper Columbia River steelhead occurred throughout the steelhead fishery areas. For the 2010-2011 season, enforcement activities reported 872 enforcement hours, 1,124 angler contacts, and 185 reported violations (Table 12). Arrests accounted for 7% of all anglers contacted. There were no violations reported for illegal retention of unmarked steelhead.

* “Escapement” refers to that portion of an anadromous fish population that escapes the commercial and recreational fisheries and reaches the freshwater spawning grounds.





 Inter-Columbia River area map




Ford MJ (ed.), Cooney T, McElhany P, Sands N, Weitkamp L, Hard J, McClure M, Kope R, Myers J, Albaugh A, Barnas K, Teel D, Moran P, Cowen J. 2010. Status Review update for Pacific Salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act: Northwest. Draft U.S. Department Of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NOAA‐TM‐NWFSC‐XXX.


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