It’s hard to ignore the dismal forecast for this summer’s steelhead return to the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Just how bad is it? Well, this year’s wild and hatchery summer runs returning past Bonneville Dam are forecast to be the lowest in the past 34 years.
Predictions for all stocks look bad, but in particular the later arriving and larger B-runs headed for the Clearwater River will be in the worst shape. A measly 1,100 wild and 6,200 hatchery B-runs are forecast to make it to Bonneville. That is a small fraction of their annual average and has raised serious concerns about how many of those fish will survive the fisheries and actually reach their spawning grounds — in addition to causing hatchery managers increasing concern about meeting their broodstock goals.
Channeling Game of Thrones…Winter is Coming, my friends.
Herein lies the problem for steelhead anglers. Columbia and Snake River steelhead above Bonneville Dam are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA allows an incidental sport take (mortality) of 2% on wild A- and B-run stocks, which means we are only allowed to incidentally kill 22 wild B-run steelhead combined in all of the fisheries in the Columbia watershed. That is a very small number of fish for what is typically a very large number of anglers over several months of fishing.
So, how do we provide sustainable fishing opportunity under such conditions? Not an easy task. Fish management agencies are now soliciting comments from anglers and evaluating options to ensure that we can have some fishery, while at the same time making sure we don’t exceed the incidental ESA take limits.
Each year thousands of anglers descend on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to get their fix of summer steelhead fishing. Given the extraordinarily low numbers of projected steelhead returns here, it is almost certain that new, temporary restrictions on angling will be necessary to meet ESA goals. That is why fisheries managers are considering closing angling in cold-water refuge areas along the main-stem Columbia, ranging from the mouth of the Deschutes to Drano Lake. They are also considering prohibiting night fishing and perhaps implementing gear restrictions to reduce handling and mortality rates.
It will take a combo platter of such actions to keep anglers from loving steelhead to death this year. While we don’t want to overreact to what could be (we hope) a single bad year, it is critical to be conservative when forecasts are this poor. As anglers and steelhead advocates, we can no longer apply a “business as usual” approach to angling for summer run steelhead in the Columbia River system.
Among potential changes to angling regulations, two stand out for their greater significance in terms of benefits for steelhead: closure of cold-water refugia and elimination of night fishing.
Adult steelhead rely heavily on cold-water refugia in the Columbia (and other rivers) as a physiological respite from elevated temperatures in many reaches of their main-stems. Is it appropriate, and sporting, to take advantage of wild steelhead in these thermal refuges, especially during times of severely depressed returns? Disallowing fishing in these areas, whether for a whole season or part of it, will help reduce angler encounter rates and maximize our chances for fishing without exceeding ESA thresholds for incidental take.
Night fishing is popular for steelhead in the Columbia. But this activity is very difficult to manage and enforce. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) police recently told the Columbian (http://www.columbian.com/news/2017/mar/30/steelhead-fishing-restrictions-closures-loom/) that officers found three wild B-run steelhead illegally harvested in one night at Drano Lake. That would account for 13.6% of this year’s allowable non-tribal take of 22 wild steelhead. We must ask ourselves whether this kind of fishing activity — which is not practiced by the vast majority of steelhead anglers — is justified during times of crisis like we have now, especially when one likely effect is reduction in fishing opportunity for everyone else.
Such limited angling restrictions will go a long way toward maximizing the return of wild B-run steelhead to their spawning grounds and ensuring that hatcheries have an adequate supply of brood. Especially in times like these, we need to give steelhead a break from angling pressure, both in cold-water areas and at night. We need to handle fish with extra care, and focus less on numbers and more on the experience. If we can do that, there is no reason that we cannot have fisheries this summer without risking the objects of our affection — and future opportunity.
Fingers crossed that it’s only one bad summer. We can still be on the rivers and enjoy the morning sun rising over the desert hills. We can still fish. We just have to dial it back a bit. If we take care of the fish, the fishing will take care of itself.
We all must dedicate ourselves to a higher standard when fishing for summer steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers this year. Off the water, you can help by attending public meetings hosted by the fisheries management agencies. Let your actions demonstrate that protecting at-risk steelhead runs and future angling opportunity is more important than a few more fish caught in the short term.