2022-2033 steelhead reintroduction final count

Attempts to reintroduce summer steelhead into the Upper Deschutes Basin above the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project on the Deschutes River have been ongoing for over a decade. This past season saw 131 returning adults moved up into Lake Billy Chinook, the largest number so far, where they will hopefully naturally spawn. 131 adult fish remains a disappointing number, but it is two to almost three times the count over the past few years, and it points to the success fisheries managers at Portland General Electric are having adapting their management strategies in the face of the deteriorating outlook for steelhead over much of the west coast of North America.

The 2022-2023 Deschutes summer steelhead season ended April 30. While steelhead can start appearing in the lowermost sections of the Deschutes River in June, most don’t arrive at the uppermost stretches until winter with stragglers arriving as late as April. (These are amazing fish.)  According to Portland General Electric, the final reintroduction count for this past season is 131 steelhead. These are fish that were either released as smolts or naturally reared above LBC, out migrated via the fish capture facility, and returned as adults, most likely after spending two years in the ocean.

In comparison, the 2021-2022 season saw 46 adult returns, the total for the season prior to that was 52, and there were 57 the season before that. These are fish captured in the fish trap on the Deschutes near the re-regulating dam. Last year saw 31 wild fish captured in the trap, all of which were released back into the river. Note that this is not the full count of all wild steelhead in the Deschutes last season, only the ones that made it up to the dam. There were also 1,251 hatchery fish captured in the trap.

Of the 131, 125 were reared in a hatchery and released as smolts in either the Crooked River or Middle Deschutes River or one of their tributaries. Six returning adults were naturally spawned.

Clearly, the return of only 131 adult steelhead from the Upper Deschutes Basin is disappointing. On the other hand, the return of wild adults in the river has been plummeting. Two years ago saw the lowest return of wild steelhead in the Deschutes on record. There was a small increase in the 2021-2022 season but the forecast this year is to see a new low.

Of course, low returns is not an issue specifically with the Deschutes River. There has been a lot of misinformation and outright disinformation from various special interests on this topic, but there is overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes.

Most anadromous fish, not just steelhead, throughout the entire Columbia Basin and much of the West Coast up into Canada are in peril.  The reasons are clear.  A warming ocean is disrupting the food web that anadromous fish rely on.  Record heat and low flows warm rivers beyond what can be tolerated by cold water fish. Dams, agriculture, and other developments have degraded, blocked, and otherwise eliminated spawning and rearing habitat.  Genetically inferior hatchery fish compete and breed with wild fish reducing wild fish robustness.  Harvest occurs at unsustainable levels.  Waters are polluted from agricultural, municipal, and industrial sources. 

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, it is not simply a Deschutes River issue. The sliver of good news is that PGE saw some success this past season in their steelhead reintroduction efforts.