2021-2022 steelhead reintroduction final count

The 2021-2022 Deschutes summer steelhead season officially ended April 30. While steelhead can start appearing in the lower most sections of the Deschutes in June, most don’t arrive at the upper stretches until winter with stragglers arriving in March and April. According to Portland General Electric, the final reintroduction count for this past season is 46 steelhead. (Look at the spreadsheets from May 2021 through April 2022.) The 2020-2021 season saw 52 adult returns and the total for the season prior to that was 57. Clearly, the return of only 46 adult steelhead from the Upper Deschutes Basin is disappointing. On the other hand, the return of wild and hatchery adults in the entire river has been plummeting.

The count is mostly of hatchery fish released as smolts into the Crooked River, Middle Deschutes, or one of their tributaries, were captured at the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook, marked and released into the Lower Deschutes River, and which typically returned 2 years later as adults.

Of course, low returns 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, low flows 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.

Of the 46 adults, 39 were LM (left maxillary bone) clipped fish. These are fish that were marked prior to being released in the Upper Basin as smolts. They were raised in Round Butte hatchery, moved for a brief stay into an acclimation pen in a tributary of Lake Billy Chinook, and then released to immediately start their journey to the ocean.

Seven of the smolts captured at the SWW had no markings and their right maxillary bone was clipped before being passed downstream. These fish were most likely from natural spawning.

The bottom line is that the reintroduction effort continues to fall far short of its goal. I don’t believe the effort should be halted, but without significant improvement throughout the entire Columbia Basin, steelhead appear to remain on a path to extinction.