By Jack Pokorny
This summer, 130,700 steelhead are projected to return to the Columbia River system, the lowest number since 1980 according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Due to these projections, parts of the Columbia, Drano Lake, Lewis, Wind, Cowlitz, and White Salmon Rivers are subject to new angling regulations. Through July 31, anglers will be limited to harvesting a single hatchery steelhead. Beginning August 1, all fish must be released with the exception of anglers enrolled in the pikeminnow Sport-Reward Program.
TU’s Science Director, John McMillan, and other scientists agree there are likely two main culprits for the predicted low returns. First, in 2015 water temperatures in the Columbia River were consistently much warmer than average — over 70 degrees in early spring as reported by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s website. Juvenile steelhead require cold temperatures to successfully complete the smoltification process and enter the ocean. Second, those fish that did manage to successfully smolt were met with poor ocean conditions, including a huge “blob” of warm water in the North Pacific.
Steelhead anglers have lived a blessed existence in the Columbia since the early 2000s, when ocean conditions turned for the better. Many of us likely never experienced the poor returns of the mid-1990s. Those returns were so bad that the future of Columbia steelheading was in question. So while this year’s returns are worrisome, we should remember that variation in run sizes is normal. The most important lesson for steelhead anglers is to treat the fish extra carefully during these periods of poor returns.
Another lesson we should keep in mind is that fisheries managers often over-estimate run sizes for salmon and steelhead, which means actual returns could be lower than currently predicted for the Columbia. Hence, more restrictions on angling could come as dam counts are updated over the course of the summer.
Anglers will still be able to go out and enjoy the fish and rivers. But all of us need to do so in a way that limits our impact and maximizes the number of wild fish that make it to their spawning grounds. Whether steelhead run sizes improve next year or not, the better we treat the fish this summer, the more likely those fish will reward us when their offspring return in 3-6 years. Until then, let’s be as careful as possible during these particularly bad years for adult steelhead returns.