As winter settles in across steelhead country, anglers have a moment to reflect upon the heartbreaking loss of the steelhead season on Idaho’s iconic Clearwater River. It is worth taking a moment to consider why this happened and then taking action to support what must be done to recover this fishery for the future.
Near the end of September, the Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) Commission voted to close the season on the Clearwater River and a portion of the Snake River within the state’s border. A few days later, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) closed steelhead fishing on the majority of the Columbia River and sections of Snake River as well.
The angling closures followed weeks of downgraded steelhead run forecasts, revised limits on the number and size of fish allowed to be kept by anglers, and a closure at the mouth of the Deschutes River to protect steelhead and salmon taking refuge in the cold water found there.
This is the third year in a row that dam counts of returning summer steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and their tributaries like the Clearwater, Salmon and Grand Ronde, have been far below the ten-year average. It is especially troubling as pre-season forecasts predicted a better expected return after the dismal recent years.
While the A-run steelhead are certainly struggling, the B-run fish, the famous large summer steelhead that return to the Clearwater after extra years at sea, are nearly absent in this year’s count. By September 18, based on years of aggregated run timing data, half of the B-run steelhead should have passed through the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River. Biologists raised the alarm when this threshold date passed and it became clear that the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery wouldn’t have enough B-run steelhead returning to achieve minimum spawning requirements for their long running broodstock program. Further upstream from Bonneville, during this crucial time of the run, Eric Barker reported in the Lewiston Tribune: “At Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, daily steelhead counts over the past week ranged from a low of 17 and a high of 38. The 10-year average for daily steelhead counts over the same period ranges from 215 to 1,063.”
Soon afterward, faced with such dismal steelhead counts, the angling season was closed to protect these small numbers of returning fish. In December, Idaho announced it will re-open the Clearwater to steelhead angling in January of 2020, a proposal that has been met with concern.
The board and staff of the Wild Steelhead Coalition are diehard anglers, and many of us have long made fall pilgrimages from Spokane or Seattle to the Clearwater and other Snake River tributaries. It pains us not to have a chance to fish these iconic rivers. We are also concerned about the guides and local communities who depend on visiting anglers for their livelihood.
Mostly, we are horrified by the fact that steelhead returns have been allowed to collapse this far. The low returns are troubling and indisputable. We support the decisions of fishery managers to close the season for the sake of protecting these few returning fish from harvest and the small amount of accidental mortality due to catch-and-release angling. When run counts are so low, every spawning fish counts.
We remain skeptical that this fishery can be responsibly reopened in 2020 unless there is a significant increase in naturally returning B-run steelhead over Lower Granite Dam in December and January, something that’s unlikely to occur. While ongoing trap-and-haul programs may be a worthwhile emergency tool for this struggling steelhead run, their use for the broodstock program alone does not justify reopening the Clearwater steelhead fishery given the continued lack of wild spawners.
That said, it is our hope that the closure this Fall is the final alarm call that wakes up the public, fishery managers and the angling community to the desperate situation steelhead, and salmon, face in the Columbia and Snake River systems. This season’s returns were particularly bad, among the worst since record keeping began, but the poor numbers didn’t appear from nowhere. They are the continuation of a long term decline. Action must be taken to prevent Idaho summer steelhead populations from slipping away on our watch.
Many factors can contribute to either the decline or restoration of wild steelhead populations in their native watersheds. For the fish of the Columbia and Snake River systems, including the unique B-run steelhead of the Clearwater, we can look to both the near and long term for solutions to support the recovery of these threatened species.
In the near term, steelhead simply cannot be spared. The Wild Steelhead Coalition supports efforts to reduce angling mortality such as the use of single, barbless hooks; slot limits to protect the large B-run fish; and rules that keep wild fish in the water at all times. Spring fishing seasons should be limited or eliminated if they impact steelhead spawning.
By-catch of steelhead in gill net fisheries must be limited as much as possible through the use of more selective gear. Some removal of pinnipeds in the lower Columbia should proceed to limit their predation of migratory fish species. Increased, mandatory spill at appropriate levels of dissolved oxygen and nitrogen at hydropower dams must be maintained to move smolts to the Pacific Ocean instead of letting them languish is warm, still reservoirs where they use too much energy and are exposed to immense amounts of predation by non-native fish species like catfish, walleye and bass.
In the long term, it is the dams that have the largest impact on steelhead, and salmon, in the Columbia and Snake River system. In particular, the four lower Snake River dams must be removed for the sake of fish migration. Again and again, our best science points to the destruction caused by these dams, especially the devastating toll they take on smolt migration.
It must also be acknowledged that the vast majority of spawning habitat for the Clearwater’s B-run steelhead was made inaccessible when the Dworshak Dam blocked the North Fork of the Clearwater River in 1973. It is the third tallest dam in the United States and was built without a fish ladder. Long term viability of the B-run steelhead will necessarily involve fish passage or the removal of this catastrophic fish barrier.
Finally, the collapse of the B-run fish counts highlight the perils of depending on hatcheries for steelhead recovery. This year biologists noted that the wild steelhead numbers are holding relatively steady (though still reflecting long term decline) compared to the returns of both hatchery origin A-run and B-run fish. Those fish, raised in domestication, simply do not survive the rigors of migration as well as the diverse, resilient wild fish. Every effort should be made to get the wild fish to utilize the best remaining spawning and rearing habitat whenever possible. And once there, they must be protected so they can spawn successfully. The wild fish are simply better at surviving and thriving. We see this in river systems where their populations, and habitat, have been prioritized by fishery managers. This is the best path forward for the Columbia and Snake watershed, too. Idaho is fortunate because so much amazing upstream habitat remains intact. For sustainable runs of fish, we need steelhead spawning in these cold water refugees and their offspring migrating downstream unimpeded.
Wild steelhead face an uncertain future. The ocean is warming and acidifying. They are still exposed to excessive harvest. Dams keep them from accessing the habitat that remains in places like Idaho and take a toll on fish numbers whenever they pass through their impoundments.
Science tells us the steps that must be taken to protect these remaining populations. If not, we can only expect more closures and dwindling populations like what has happened on the Clearwater River this past fall. One only has to look north to the Thompson River in British Columbia to see what happens when the warning signs are ignored for too long. We must prevent that tragedy from occurring here.
As anglers and conservationists, we must support the organizations working to remove the four Lower Snake River Dams and demand fishery policies in Idaho, Washington and Oregon that prioritize wild steelhead recovery in the Columbia and Snake River watersheds. Our steelhead and salmon populations are teetering at incredibly low numbers and it is time to change course before it is too late.
TAKE ACTION: A crucial first step towards breaching the four Lower Snake River Dams is for anglers and conservationists to have their voices heard. Washington is seeking feedback on the public’s opinion about the costs and benefits of dam removal in the LSRD Stakeholder Process. An online survey is a part of this public initiative.
It is important for all of us to take a few moments between now and January 24, when the survey closes, to register our support for breaching these destructive dams for the benefit of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
Learn more and complete the survey here: lsrdstakeholderprocess.org/