N. Umpqua steelhead assessment

Last week, ODFW held an online seminar to go over their recent research concerning summer steelhead returns on the North Umpqua River.  You can watch the replay here and read the entire 143 page report here.  The presentation is worth watching, I also suggest reading at least the summary of the report and scanning the rest.  This work was hastily done in response to the extremely low steelhead returns last summer and calls by many in the fly angling community to curtail hatchery steelhead releases.  No management decisions have been made, only the data was reviewed, but based on the report I would anticipate little or no changes to hatchery practices.  That decision will be made at the ODFW Commission meeting on April 22, you can get information on how to view that meeting here (it’s the last item on the agenda).  Keep reading for my comments on the report.

I want to start by commending ODFW for this analysis of steelhead returns on the N. Umpqua.  Clearly, there are many unknowns and assumptions used.  Criticisms can and will be made, but I am thankful that ODFW put in what appears to be sincere effort into producing it.  This report is going to be controversial and rejected by many, especially those deeply invested in the wild versus hatchery debate.  I include myself in that group when it comes to anadromous fish, but I try to keep an open mind.

The bottom line is that ODFW has presented data showing that steelhead returns in most Oregon rivers are dramatically declining due to poor ocean conditions.  They found no evidence of diminished returns due to hatchery practices, despite pHOS (percentage hatchery on spawning) above target levels.  Further, they found little to no evidence of abundance being impacted by angling, predation, or other often cited concerns.

Not long ago a report by another group concluding that poor ocean conditions are the dominate factor in declining anadromous fish returns created a firestorm in the conservation community.  Many groups dismissed the report altogether as a smoke screen from the hydropower community to help justify the continued operation of dams.  I remain unsympathetic to that line of thought.  These concepts are not opposed.  It seems perfectly obvious to me that ocean conditions are the dominant factor, you only need to read a small amount of the science to understand this.  That does not mean, however, that we should ignore habitat, including dam removal, reducing/eliminating hatchery interactions with wild fish, managing harvest, etc.  Heat, as in global heating, however, is the dominant theme we should all be focused on, and not just for anadromous fish.

My primary criticism is that the report contains an important internal contradiction, even with ODFW’s numerous stated caveats.  They show data that ocean conditions improved in 2021 and project that steelhead returns will recover to target levels “as environment conditions improve” with the caveat that this is “based on environmental conditions changing and the potential for more frequent downturns”.  They also state that none of their simulations show abundance levels falling below the minimum threshold of 1,200 fish, even though 2021 returns were only 449 adults.  Clearly, this calls into question their methodology.  I think we need to look at actual returns rather than relying on simulations.  It is important to acknowledge that global warming has progressed at a rate in excess of even the most dire projections of only a few years ago.

While expressing the view that steelhead returns will improve and that they are not in danger of extinction, the ODFW report reviews projections of dramatic deterioration in ocean conditions in the coming decades.  The overwhelming scientific consensus, and the conclusion of ODFW’s ocean change research, is that these ocean changes will occur, making survival difficult for many if not all anadromous species.  It’s inconsistent to state that the N. Umpqua steelhead “population exhibits high viability and is expected to rebound as environmental conditions improve” while also predicting dire ocean conditions in the coming decades.

It is also difficult to understand how ODFW concludes that hatchery practices have no discernible impact on wild populations.  The best available science firmly concludes that interactions between wild and hatchery fish degrades wild stocks.  ODFW admits that pHOS levels in the N. Umpqua basin are well above target levels, but states that it is not a factor in wild fish abundance.  While it may not be the primary factor, I find it hard to believe that ODFW has concluded it is not a measurable factor. Given the clear negative trends in anadromous fish abundance and the numerous uncertainties noted in the report shouldn’t we be erring on the side of conservation?  ODFW cannot influence ocean conditions, but there are factors they can control.  I believe they should be taking all steps possible to protect wild, native fish.

Side note: yesterday I discussed this topic while fishing with a friend who has been a wild fish advocate who said he has recently changed his mind on the wild vs hatchery debate. He current belief is that steelhead are doomed and that we should now maximize production of hatchery fish, which will improve returns over the short term while we can still fish for them. His idea is that if time is short, let’s have fun while we still can. I don’t share that opinion but have to acknowledge that while bleak it is not irrational. It’s going to be extremely difficult to find consensus on this topic.