Columbia Steelhead Poor Returns

A group of steelhead fishermen has the Clearwater River to themselves on Feb. 4, 2014. Record low numbers of steelhead are returning to the Columbia River in 2021, prompting conservationists and anglers alike to call for a halt to recreational fishing for the sea-run fish.

PORTLAND — Columbia River steelhead are in hot water.

The number of steelhead returning from the Pacific Ocean to the river this year is the lowest ever recorded. As of last week, just more than 29,000 steelhead passed Bonneville Dam since July 1 — that’s less than half the average of the past five years.

The low number has led a coalition of conservation and fishing organizations to call for a shutdown of all recreational steelhead fishing in the Columbia Basin for the fall season.

“This is a really, really dire year for steelhead — especially wild steelhead — in the Columbia River Basin,” said Rob Kirschner, legal and policy director for the Conservation Angler, which advocates for protection and restoration of wild fish in the Pacific Northwest and Kamchatka, Russia.

The coalition sent a letter to the Oregon, Washington and Idaho agencies that manage fish and wildlife requesting an immediate closure of recreational steelhead fisheries on the Columbia River, the Lower Snake River and their tributaries.

“The status of these individual populations are so low that we are trying to protect every eligible spawner,” Kirschner said. “Every one of these fish counts.”

Steelhead trout on the Columbia and Snake rivers are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. After hatching in freshwater rivers and streams, steelhead migrate to the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn.

The construction of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, overfishing and climate change have contributed to steelhead population declines.

This year, as much of the Northwest has faced excessive heat and relentless drought, high water temperatures on the Columbia and Snake rivers have been detrimental to steelhead runs.

Commissioners and staff with the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife met virtually Friday, Aug. 27, to discuss options for limiting damage. Most fisheries on the Columbia require fishermen to release any steelhead they catch this fall.

“There just aren’t many more places to get significant savings,” said Ryan Lothrop, Washington’s Columbia River fishery manager.

The groups that wrote the letter to commissioners say that’s not true. They say closing recreational steelhead fisheries altogether for the fall could prevent unnecessary fish deaths — and that fishermen stand to benefit.

“[W]e simply do not believe that fishing for ESA-listed steelhead during their worst return on record is appropriate for these fish or future generations of fishermen,” the letter reads. “For a species that has provided generations with memorable fishing experiences, asking fishermen to sit a season out is reasonable and necessary considering the circumstances.”

Signatories included representatives from the Native Fish Society, Friends of the Clearwater, Wild Fish Conservancy, North Umpqua Foundation and Fly Fishers International in addition to the Conservation Angler.

Commissioners with the Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife made no decisions or recommendations for recreational steelhead fisheries at the Aug. 27 meeting, but may do so soon.

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