Daily fish counts at Lower Granite and Bonneville dams foreshadowed recent moves by state, federal and tribal fisheries managers in the Northwest to downgrade their official forecast for the return of steelhead to the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Snake River.
The moves, not unexpected, follow weeks of ugly steelhead counts recorded at dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. For example, steelhead passage at Bonneville Dam recently numbered between 477 and 814 per day. The 10-year average for daily steelhead passage at Bonneville during the same time span ranges from 2,714 to 2,921.
At Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River daily steelhead counts recently 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.
The numbers reflect the failure of A-run steelhead to meet preseason expectations. In response, fisheries managers in Washington reduced steelhead bag limits to just one hatchery fish per day on the Snake, Grande Ronde, Tucannon, Touchet and Walla Walla rivers. The state also adopted regulations that require anglers fishing on the Snake River between its mouth and the Couse Creek Boat Ramp south of Asotin to release any steelhead 28 inches in length or longer. Washington also extended a steelhead fishing closure on the lower reaches of the Wind, White Salmon and Klickitat rivers.
Washington and Oregon extended a steelhead harvest closure below the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River through September. Idaho ealier reduced steelhead bag limits to one per day and implemented requirements to release steelhead 28 inches or longer caught from the Clearwater River and its tributaries and the Snake River downstream of Couse Creek.
The latest steelhead forecast, released last week, calls for 76,000 A- and B-run to return at least as far as Bonneville Dam. The preseason forecast was a modest 118,200 which was downgraded to 86,000. Fisheries managers did not update the forecasts to reflect how many of the expected steelhead will belong to the A-run and how many to the B-run. The A-run returns earlier and those fish generally spend just one year in the ocean. The B-run fish are bigger and return later in the year after spending, on average, two years in the ocean.
The downgrade was based on the performance of A-run fish. B-run steelhead are just starting to show up at Bonneville Dam and fisheries managers won’t know for some time if those fish will live up to the preseason forecast.
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But even if they do meet expectations, the B-run is not likely to change the forecast for the better. That is because fisheries managers are calling for only about 8,000 of the big steelhead to return to Bonneville Dam this year and only about 5,300 to Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
“We weren’t expecting a very big (B-) run, so any sort of a downgrade in that component is going to make it even more grim,” said Alan Byrne, a fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise. “But we probably need a few more weeks before we can say anything about that component.”
Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane, said wild steelhead are performing as expected, but hatchery fish are lagging. The difference in performance means this year’s run to date has been dominated by fish that anglers can’t keep.
Through Sept. 3, 2,072 steelhead had been counted at Lower Granite Dam since July 1. Of those, 1,397 or about 67 percent, were either wild or unclipped hatchery fish. Based on the 10-year average during the same time period, wild and unclipped steelhead should make up about 40 percent of the run. Wild steelhead are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and anglers who catch them are required to let them go.
This year’s steelhead run is the third in the row to perform well below most runs over the past two decades. The poor returns have led to bag-limit and size reductions and to acrimonious posturing between state fisheries managers, some conservation groups and anglers.
Fisheries managers suspect lingering poor conditions in the Pacific Ocean have led to low survival of the fish during their time at sea. They had hoped the A-run would see a modest rebound this year based on indications that ocean conditions are improving.
Donley said even with the disappointing steelhead numbers, anglers still have fishing opportunities. He said the fall chinook run is preforming as expected, and the coho run is also looking like it will live up to forecasts.
“At least we are in a good spot there,” he said.