Steelhead Returns and a Climate Change Denying Environmental Group

D Steel 10.31.18

October through the end of the year is one of my favorite times to fish the lower Deschutes River.  The crowds are gone and the trout are still there.  On Halloween a friend and I had a good day.  One of the trout I landed measured at just under 18”.  The bonus was this hatchery steelhead which was a thrill to land using trout gear.  Nevertheless, the outlook for wild Deschutes steelhead remains bleak.

As of the end of October a total of 120 wild steelhead have been counted at the Sherar’s Falls fish trap and 3 have been captured at the trap at the bottom of the Pelton Round Butte dam complex.  Not all steelhead use the fish ladder at Sherar’s Falls but 120 is a low number.  Of course, it’s better than the total of 3 wild fish at the Pelton trap.  So far this year only 7 fish have returned to Pelton that were released as smolts or fry above the dams as part of the reintroduction effort.

Below is the latest graph for steelhead returns through Bonneville Dam.  Steelhead returning to the greater Columbia River Basin, including the Deschutes River, must pass through Bonneville.  The black line is the 10 year average, the blue line was last year, and the red is this year.  As predicted, returns this year are even worse than last year’s dismal returns.

11.4.18 Returns

I have posted many times on the various issues leading to the dramatic decline of anadromous fish in much of the Columbia Basin.  Dams, pollution, over fishing, increased predation, etc., all play a role.  Global warming is now at the top of the list, however.  Global warming has led to consistent drought conditions in Oregon east of the Cascades reducing habitat and raising river temperatures to sometimes lethal levels.  Global warming is also severely impacting ocean conditions and anadromous fish.

While they have not closed fishing, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife has asked anglers to not fish for Columbia Basin steelhead this season and only last week extended the limit on hatchery fish harvest on the Snake River and its tributaries in order to capture enough to meet their hatchery needs.  ODFW also closed fall chinook fishing in coastal rivers and bays in the northwest zone and extended gear restrictions in other rivers due to low returns.

(Yes, I know I caught a hatchery steelhead a few days ago, but I was targeting trout, using trout gear and flies.)

Global warming is real and is happening now, it is not some distant threat.  I am not surprised by the harsh comments I frequently receive from climate change deniers but I am surprised by the Deschutes River Alliance’s dismissal of global warming as a factor in current low returns to the Deschutes.  Their most recent post criticizing the efforts to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin contains this head-scratching line:

“The low numbers of returning adult fish are regularly blamed on current climate conditions. Indeed, there is no doubt that climate conditions—and subsequent poor ocean conditions—have created survival challenges for all anadromous fish. However, these conditions are not new.  They have plagued salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin for at least two decades.”

Huh?  The collapse of the ocean food web off the Oregon coast due to warm water has been going on for 2 decades?  I would love to see the science backing that statement.  I do agree with the DRA, however, that reintroduction effort results have been very disappointing and change needs to occur.  Fortunately, important changes are being planned but it will take time for results to be known.  Of course, a global warming may be the final arbiter of reintroduction success.