Steelhead Fishing Closure: Too Little Too Late?

By now you should be aware that two days ago ODFW partially closed steelhead fishing on a few rivers, including parts of the Deschutes during September. For the past three years I have been writing that this should occur, and not just for part of the Deschutes for a single month. Here’s a post I made just 3 weeks ago illustrating how “bleak” the returns have been. In their press release on August 27th, ODFW stated that steelhead returns so far this year are the lowest since counts began in 1938. As of August 20, steelhead counts at Sherars Falls on the Deschutes near Maupin were only 1/3 the already low 2020 counts. Above is a graph showing unclipped steelhead returns over Bonneville Dam, fish destined for all the tributaries of the Columbia. Note that unclipped mostly means wild, but not always. Some unclipped fish are actually hatchery fish that are part of steelhead reintroduction efforts, like in the Upper Deschutes Basin. Also note that the 10 year average in the graph is getting pretty low as the last 10 years have seen poor returns.

Unfortunately, the plight of steelhead is not much of a surprise for those of us who have been tracking returns over the years. The trajectory has been down for some time and scientists have been warning for years of the near term potential for extirpation (local extinction) in the Columbia Basin.

The reasons for the decline should also be well known to readers of this blog. Weakened fish from breeding and competing with genetically inferior hatchery fish. Loss of habitat and access to spawning grounds, especially from dams. Poor water quality from pollution and elevated river temperatures. Over fishing. Global warming negatively impacting ocean food webs and oxygen levels. The list goes on.

Let’s be honest, closing part the Deschutes for a month is not going to help much, if at all. If you are angry about what’s happening to steelhead, like I am, then we need to advocate for policies that can actually have a positive impact. Let’s start by asking ODFW to make changes that are not just for show, and to enforce them. It’s pretty easy to fish for steelhead and claim that you are fishing for trout. I think ODFW should close the Deschutes from the mouth to the Pelton Round Butte complex to all fishing for the rest of the year. Do you really want to be the person to catch the last steelhead?

Yes, this will have a short term economic impact on some guides and shops. If we don’t take strong steps to fix the problem, however, they are going to have more dramatic and longer term problems. Perhaps the state could provide some economic assistance for a few months to those impacted. There seems to be no end to stimulus handouts these days.

BTW, the “final” Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation plan does not have any provisions for protecting steelhead in the Deschutes, even though it was supposed to. When I recently asked US Fish & Wildlife about that, they stated that it would be added later but don’t know when. So much for the HCP being complete or helping.