Guest column: Steelhead in crisis, time for a management change?

September 12, 2018
Guest column: Steelhead in crisis, time for a management change?


Last year was one of the poorest on record for steelhead in the Deschutes. After some initial optimism for a modest rebound, the forecast for returns this season has been lowered to be even worse.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has now closed the entire Columbia River and lower John Day River to steelhead retention and the mouth of the Deschutes River to all fishing. ODFW went further and asked anglers to avoid steelhead fishing altogether for the remainder of the year.

Wild steelhead are currently on a path to extinction in the Deschutes and entire Columbia Basin.

There are a number of reasons for this dire situation.

Dams, drought, warming rivers, irrigation withdrawals, a collapse in the ocean food web, increased predation by birds and pinnipeds, pollution from agricultural and urban runoff, commercial and tribal net fishing, habitat loss and sport fishing all play a role.

While sport anglers are the least of the problems, we must now examine our consciences and determine if the thrill of catching these magnificent fish justifies the stress we place on them even if we utilize best practices.

Wild fish are much more likely to strike, some die after release even when they look healthy, and those that do survive are less likely to spawn. Personally, I am going to fish for steelhead in Oregon rivers not in a crisis for now. I encourage you to do likewise.

One important factor in this story was the completion of the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project near Madras in 1964. PRB dammed the Deschutes, Crooked and Metolius rivers to create Lake Billy Chinook.

It also decimated spring chinook, sockeye and summer steelhead populations by blocking passage to their primary spawning grounds.

In June 2005 a new 50-year operating license was granted which required the reintroduction of naturally spawning, self-sustaining salmon and steelhead populations above PRB.

After study, it was determined that installing the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook would be the most viable approach.

In support of this effort, every year since 2008 ODFW has planted over one million hatchery-reared steelhead and chinook in the middle Deschutes, the Crooked, the Metolius and their tributaries.

Over $200 million and countless hours have been invested in this project, but the results have been extremely disappointing.

Results are nowhere near what was expected when reintroduction efforts began.

Some reasons for this are being addressed including modification to dam operation to improve downstream passage and installing a fish ladder at the Opal Springs dam on the Crooked River.

The current plan is to continue with these efforts. At this point, however, it is believed by many fisheries biologists that dramatic improvement will not occur until the use of existing hatchery fish is curtailed. The hatchery fish being planted above PRB have been segregated and inbred for approximately 50 years, yielding highly domesticated, low-quality fish. Consensus is growing that they are not the path to wild, self-sustaining populations.

It is time to re-examine the current hatchery fish approach to reintroduction. The most promising idea would be use a small portion of wild fish for breeding (There are not enough wild fish to justify the mortality risk from releasing them into upper basin rivers).

It is well known that even first-generation hatchery fish are degraded when compared to true wild fish, but they have had success in other rivers and this is a way to ensure that large numbers of close to wild fish can be planted. In the best-case scenario, wild returns would reach levels that would allow managers to discontinue planting of hatchery fish altogether.

There is growing awareness that major changes to the reintroduction program are needed if it is going to be successful. I hope they are tried soon, the survival of wild Deschutes steelhead is at stake.

A more complete discussion of this topic can be found on my blog:

— Yancy Lind lives in Bend

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