2019 – 2020 Steelhead Counts: Getting Worse


The 2019-2020 Deschutes summer steelhead season is not over, but we are close enough to draw conclusions.  They continue to be dismal.  Steelhead start entering the Deschutes River on their one-way journey to spawn in late spring and early summer.  These “summer” steelhead may make it to their spawning grounds in a tributary far upriver as early as September or as late as April.  They have an amazing life story.

The graph is of steelhead passing through Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River before it meets the Deschutes.  Steelhead destined for most rivers in the Columbia Basin must pass through this dam.  The graph shows a calendar year and you can see that no steelhead have passed through so far in 2020, the bulk of them arrive June through October.  2019’s run was less than half of the 10-year average, and that average is far lower than it used to be.

Portland General Electric publishes daily counts from the fish trap below the Pelton Regulating Dam on the Deschutes near Culver.  As of February 19, the count for the 2019 – 2020 season (starting May) was 899 total steelhead, only 2% of these were wild fish.  As of February 19 last year the total for the 2018 – 2019 season was 1,331 steelhead.  To date, returns are down 32% from last season’s already disastrous levels.

Attempts to reintroduce steelhead into the upper Deschutes Basin above the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project continue to fall far below expectations.  As of February 19th, a total of 54 upper basin origin steelhead (frys or smolts from hatchery stock planted into the upper basin) have returned.  26 of these have gone through the new Opal Springs fish ladder so far.

Columbia Basin steelhead, including the Deschutes, appear to be on the path to extinction.  There are many reasons for this including poor water quality from various sources of pollution, dams and other forms of habitat loss, lower river levels due to agricultural and municipal consumption, excessive harvest, etc.  One of the most important issues for all anadromous fish today, however, is global heating.

Dramatically rising ocean temperatures have severely disrupted the ocean’s food web and many young steelhead and salmon enter the ocean only to starve to death.  Of course, they are not the only ocean species suffering from a lack of food.  The disastrous effects of global heating are staring us right in the face.