Portland General Electric provided the final reintroduction counts for the 2020-2021 steelhead season last Friday* and once again they were extremely disappointing: a total of 52 steelhead. These are fish from the Upper Deschutes Basin that were captured as out migrating smolts 2 years ago at the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook, potentially marked and released into the Lower Deschutes River, and which subsequently returned as adults. Last year 57 adults returned. It is almost important to know that the number of all steelhead (wild, hatchery, and reintroduced) captured at the Pelton Trap was very low (1,309).
Once again, I make the case that this is not an issue specifically with the Deschutes River, it is a result of many factors that have led to massive declines in anadromous fish populations throughout the Pacific Northwest. These include global warming which is destroying the food chain in the ocean as well as lowering and warming rivers, dams which remove habitat and impede migration, over fishing, pollution, cross-breeding and competition with hatchery fish, etc. Without large scale reform, wild steelhead in much of the Columbia Basin and beyond are on the path to extinction and hatchery fish could follow.
For those of you who track the reintroduction closely, keep reading.
Of the 52 adults, 16 were marked as RM fish, meaning they were captured at the SWW with no markings and their right maxillary bone was clipped before being passed downstream. These are fish that were most likely released as fry 3-4 years ago into the Upper Basin although some may be naturally spawned fish. Fry releases have been stopped, so going forward any unmarked fish will be from natural spawning. The other 36 fish were LM (left maxillary clipped). These are fish that were marked prior to being released in the Upper Basin as smolts 2 years ago. These fish immediately start their journey to the ocean.
There is uncertainty at this point as to where the returning adults went after their release into Lake Billy Chinook. These fish are radio tagged so they can be tracked. Deschutes Valley Water District (the owner/operator of the Opal Springs hydro facility near the bottom of the Crooked River) told me that they counted 15 steelhead through the ladder and detected 3 more near the project. This is a very low percentage of the total compared to prior years.
PGE tells me that they have not completed looking at their data from their fixed tracking stations but based on helicopter-based tracking data they believe that more went up the Crooked while only a small number went up the Middle Deschutes / Wychus Creek and the Metolius.
The speculation is that a low water year coupled with some changes in how smolts are acclimated prior to final release has reduced upstream migration. Perhaps the adults stayed in LBC before eventually perishing. Perhaps they stayed low in the Crooked River (below Opal Springs) and low in the Middle Deschutes. This is pure speculation at this point. I look forward to this year’s Fishery Workshop for more analysis of this.
The bottom line, however, is that the reintroduction effort is falling far short of its goal. I don’t believe the reintroduction effort should be halted, but without significant improvement throughout the entire Columbia Basin, steelhead appear to remain on a path to extinction.
*The Deschutes summer steelhead season officially ends the end of April. While steelhead can start appearing in the lower most sections of the Deschutes in June, most don’t arrive at the upper stretches until January and February with stragglers arriving in March and April.