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.
The research study argues that the most prized salmon and steelhead populations along the west coast of North America are in decline, often dramatically so, and that the reasons are complex. Dams are not the sole culprit. This can be a controversial statement in many environmental circles, but it is true. It is well known that anadromous fish are declining in river systems that are not impacted by dams as well as where dams are present. This is not an either-or proposition, however.
For Central Oregonians, the “day trip” on the Deschutes is the stretch from Warm Springs to Trout Creek. While steelhead counts on the Columbia are somewhat elevated from last year’s dismal numbers, it has not translated into good returns on the day trip section so far this season. According to fish counts on the PGE website, a total of 186 steelhead have been captured at the trap near the base of the Pelton Reregulating Dam from May through October. Of those, 8 were true wild fish and were returned to the river. 15 of the fish were planted as fry or smolts above Lake Billy Chinook. Most of these will be released into LBC with the hope they will naturally reproduce in the Crooked River or Whychus Creek. The 163 hatchery fish will mostly be used as brood stock for future hatchery production. These are small numbers, but the next three months typically see the most fish arrive. Keep your fingers crossed.
From my perspective, one of the highlights of the Deschutes Fisheries Workshop is the annual report on lower Deschutes fish from ODFW. That presentation did not occur this year, so I talked to Rod French, ODFW Mid-Columbia District Fish Biologist which includes the lower Deschutes. There was a surprise, read on for more.
I have looked forward to attending the annual Deschutes Fisheries Workshop for many years. It has been the place to hear the latest, best available science on what is happening in the Deschutes River, some of its tributaries, and anadromous fish reintroduction efforts. I found the online event yesterday to be disappointing, however. Part of that is due to the lack interaction with others in the hallway, during a meal, or at the bar. The organizers are not to blame for that, they have no control over the pandemic, but they could have provided a lot more content. Here’s my summary and criticism of the 26th annual meeting
This year’s workshop is being held online on July 23rd. Before COVID these workshops were 1.5 days and filled with great information. I have been going for years and always learn from them. This year will be much shorter but still the place to get the latest info on anadromous fish reintroduction efforts. See the agenda and sign up here.
Adult steelhead start arriving in the Upper Deschutes during the summer and continue through the following April. (Steelhead are amazing.) Today, Portland General Electric released their April adult fish count for the Pelton Trap near the bottom of the re-regulating dam. A total of 57 adult steelhead returned during the 2019-2020 season. 22 of them were released as fry into the upper basin and 35 were released as smolts. There’s no denying that 10 years in, this is a disappointment.Read More »
Believe it or not, if you look at the individual fish count numbers on the PGE website for past years, summer steelhead season in the upper most stretches of the Deschutes extends to the end of April. Some of these fish really take their time to get to their final destination. So, while the return season is not over, we are getting close. As of March 6th, 53 steelhead have been passed above the dams into Lake Billy Chinook. 47 of those were recently counted via radio tags, 22 in the Crooked River, and 3 in the Crooked arm of Lake Billy Chinook, presumably getting ready to head up the river. This once again shows the importance of the fish ladder at Opal Springs.
The July 24th Source Weekly contained a guest column by Greg McMillan, president of the Deschutes River Alliance, that needs a response. It is absolutely true that attempts to reintroduce salmon and steelhead into the upper Deschutes basin above Lake Billy Chinook have been extremely disappointing. It is important to understand, however, that adult returns for salmon and steelhead have been plunging in the entire Columbia River basin and much of the Pacific Northwest. The truth is that many anadromous fish runs are on the path to extinction due to habitat loss, dams, over harvest, hatcheries, and the heating of the Pacific which has led to the collapse of the food web in many areas. This has nothing to do with local reintroduction efforts.Read More »
Rod French, ODFW’s Mid-Columbia District Fish Biologist, presented at last week’s Fisheries Workshop. This annual presentation by ODFW has been largely unchanged for years, which is excellent news. Trout have been surveyed in the lower Deschutes since the 1970s and there have been no observed negative impacts on them from the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook. If anything, trout are larger and more abundant now, which is to be expected given the more natural temperature profile of the river. Below are a lot more details, or take a look at Rod’s presentation.Read More »
The 25th annual Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop was the past two days. I have been going for years and, as usual, it was an overwhelming amount of information. I plan to follow up with some of the presenters to get a better understanding of their data and hope to have more detailed posts soon. In the meantime, here’s a quick list of the highlights from my perspective.Read More »
Last night I attended the Bend premier of Artifishal, “a film about people, rivers, and the fight for the future of wild fish and the environment that supports them. It explores wild salmon’s slide toward extinction, threats posed by fish hatcheries and fish farms, and our continued loss of faith in nature”. Produced by Patagonia and heavily promoted in the Pacific NW by the Native Fish Society, I found the film to be visually and emotionally powerful but lacking in nuance. Clearly, hatcheries are a problem for wild fish, but they are only part of a complex web of issues.Read More »
Portland General Electric’s long awaited lower Deschutes River water quality study was recently released. At over 600 pages it took me some time to get through, here are my initial impressions. This study is critically important to the ongoing effort to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin and the operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower. Also note that the Deschutes River Alliance’s lawsuit against PGE/CTWS (dismissed but under appeal) is based on allegations of water quality violations. The author of the water quality study will present and answer questions at the upcoming Fisheries Workshop. Read More »
I don’t write much about kokanee and sockeye, but they are part of the effort to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin. The tribes frequently talk about the cultural significance of sockeye but they seem to be of secondary importance in reintroduction efforts. As a fly angler who likes to target large fish, I am also very aware that kokanee are the primary food source for bull trout in Lake Billy Chinook.Read More »
The annual Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop is rapidly approaching so I have been reviewing notes from last year along with updates since then. I’ll make a few posts from that review over the next week. Like I have said before, if you are interested in learning about what is really happening in the lower Deschutes River, Lake Billy Chinook, and anadromous fish reintroduction efforts, you should attend.
Portland General Electric has recently been talking about above average returns of reintroduced spring chinook this year. I first saw mention of this in theirJune newsletter, then there was this story on KTVZ, and then today’s story in the Bend Bulletin. I hesitated to write about these returns but given the coverage, here’s my two cents. Without a doubt this is good news but with a total of 46 adult fish so far this year returns remain dismal. PGE is crediting the improvement to operational changes, specifically releasing hatchery reared smolts rather than fry along with nighttime operation of the Selective Water Withdrawal tower during out migration periods. I certainly hope these are the reasons. Time will tell, however, if this is an aberration, like the recent one year spike in Sockeye returns that has not repeated itself, or the beginning of a true recovery. I’m hopeful, but cautious.
As I have written about repeatedly in the past, if you want to hear the latest science and updates on what is happening in the Lower Deschutes, you should attend the Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop. The 25th annual workshop is next month, July 17 & 18, at The Riverhouse Convention Center in Bend. You can sign up and get the agenda here. This meeting should be especially interesting. Along with the normal updates on salmon and steelhead reintroduction efforts, the results of the long overdue water quality study will be released. You can read the latest PGE/CTWS newsletter via the link above. The complete water quality study will be posted on their site on June 20, so come to the workshop prepared to ask questions. I hope to see you there and, as usual, will post my summary of the meeting.
The official Deschutes steelhead season is from April 1 to March 31, so the 2018/2019 season is now over. Today, PGE released their March monthly newsletter which stated that a total of 35 upper basin origin adult steelhead returned and were passed above the Pelton Round Butte project and released into Lake Billy Chinook. Clearly, this is a dismal number. You can see the number of smolts that were released downstream here. Assuming that adult returns were from 2016 smolts that’s a return rate of only 0.87% (not 8.7%, I missed a decimal point in the original post). There is hope for some improvement in the adult return count, however, if not the percentage. In 2017 and 2018 steelhead smolt counts were much higher. 2017 was a better water year and in both years more smolts were planted. Starting next year only smolts will be planted. Read more about this here.
This spring marks the last stocking of fry as part of the upper Deschutes Basin salmon and steelhead reintroduction effort. Yesterday I was part of the crew helping with the final chinook salmon fry stocking and backpacked fry into the lower Crooked River canyon as well as where Alder Springs meets Whychus Creek not far from the middle Deschutes. As I wrote about here, the reintroduction effort has been a disappointment for many reasons one of which is the unsuccessful fry stocking effort and a new approach is needed.Read More »
Last week the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society held their annual meeting in Bend. I attended the 21 presentations on Water & Climate. I’ll make a few posts with highlights and, hopefully, some copies of presentations I have requested. One of the presentations was on the unintended consequences of selective water withdrawal at Cougar Dam on the South Fork of the McKenzie River. There are some interesting analogues to what is happening on the Deschutes.Read More »
The latest issue of The Osprey is now available. If you like to read scientific articles about steelhead and salmon conservation, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, then this is the journal for you. I encourage you to subscribe and help keep them going. This issue has a couple of articles that once again illustrate the peril facing anadromous fish in many PacNW river systems. It also contains an article on the lower Deschutes River which I found problematic. Read More »
Unfortunately, as of the end of September things still look pretty bleak for wild fish this season. The trap at Sherars Falls has captured a total of 44 wild steelhead. Only 3 of these have made it to the the trap at the bottom of the Pelton Round Butte complex (Lake Billy Chinook, etc.). Two of those are actually hatchery steelhead that were released above Lake Billy Chinook but did not have their adipose fins clipped. As I detailed in a series of posts starting here, these fish could be on a path to extinction in the not too distant future.
The following is a guest column I submitted to the Bend Bulletin a while back but which has not been published. It is a summary of some recent blog posts that I believe are worth further exposure in a timely manner.
Last year was one of the poorest on record for steelhead in the Deschutes. After some initial optimism for a modest rebound, the forecast for returns this season has been lowered to be even worse. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has now closed the entire Columbia River and lower John Day River to steelhead retention. ODFW went further and asked anglers to avoid steelhead fishing altogether for the remainder of the year. Wild steelhead are currently on a path to extinction in the Deschutes and entire Columbia Basin.Read More »
After 10 years of effort it is clear that the current approach to reintroducing anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin above the Pelton Round Butte project is not producing acceptable results. Fisheries managers acknowledge this but often state that it will take more time. They reply that it has been over 50 years since these fish were cut off from their traditional spawning grounds and reintroduction is a complex problem. This is true, but I believe the current dire state of steelhead returns to the Deschutes River should provide impetus to take bolder action. This is a long post, but worth reading if you care about the future of steelhead in the Deschutes River.Read More »
I got back from my latest fishing excursion (that’s a measured 27” wild, native rainbow trout) and saw The Bulletin published an editorial last Friday about the Deschutes River Alliance’s lawsuit being dismissed. What bothered me in their editorial was the use of the DRA’s tagline of cooler, cleaner water for the Deschutes. The facts on this topic are well established. The quantity of water in Lake Billy Chinook is not sufficient to keep the lower Deschutes “cooler” for the entire summer and “cleaner” is largely a function of agricultural and urban water runoff. Read More »
The Deschutes River Alliance has argued for years that PGE/CTWS’s attempt to reintroduce anadromous fish into the upper Deschutes Basin has harmed the Deschutes River below the Pelton Round Butte complex of dams. As part of their advocacy the DRA brought a lawsuit against PGE/CTWS claiming that the project violated the Clean Water Act. On Monday the suit was dismissed for lacking “material fact”. Read More »
Most anadromous smolts outmigrate in the spring. While a few stragglers may still move through the system over the remainder of the year, at this point we have a pretty complete count of this year’s totals for fish moving from the Crooked, Metolius, and upper Deschutes rivers to the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook where they are captured and then released into the lower Deschutes.
CHS are chinook, STS are steelhead, and SOC are sockeye. There’s some good news and some bad news in these figures.Read More »
The Deschutes River Alliance recently released their 2017 lower Deschutes water quality study. I admire their continued efforts to be stewards of the lower Deschutes. I also remain critical of their work and have a simple question: if the water quality of the lower Deschutes is so bad then why are the fish so healthy and abundant? As an angler, that’s what I really care about. Perhaps the DRA should spend more time studying the fish and less time speculating about what may or may not happen to them based on their views of water quality.Read More »
I had a request to post the bull trout redd survey data. As you can see, there has not been a significant drop recently. There is also hydroacoustic data that shows a continued steady population of bull trout in Lake Billy Chinook. The big drop in 2006 is correlated with a drop in the kokanee population, the bull’s primary food source, after the bulls became too numerous to be supported by the ecosystem. Note that the redd count has stayed fairly constant since then and at a level above pre-SWW levels.
At last week’s fisheries workshop, ODFW gave their annual report of fisheries population and health for the lower Deschutes. Since the 1970s they have been electrofishing the same stretches from Warm Springs to Jones Creek. As reported in past years, trout continue to be in excellent health. Condition factors were good before operation of the SWW and they are at least as good now. If anything, the fish appear to be growing faster and are larger.Read More »
I was recently sent a link to an interesting article about climate change’s impact on fly fishing in Montana and the continued denial of the science by so many, even the local Trout Unlimited chapter. The article is part of a series by Inside Climate News. It was worthwhile reading and also reminded me of anglers venting about PGE causing changes on the lower Deschutes and not considering the undeniable changes we have seen in our local climate over the past few years. Clearly, the SWW has made an impact on the river, but so has a series of droughts, low water years, and year after year of record hot summers. Next week is the annual 2-day Deschutes fisheries workshop and I look forward to hearing the latest science on the lower D. Read More »
Monday through Wednesday this week and friend Dan Pebbles and I floated the Deschutes from Trout Creek to Maupin. It was a great trip. It was hot, the river looked great, and the bugs were everywhere. We caught so many fish on the surface it was almost boring. They were uniformly healthy looking. Fat 14” to 16” fish were common, a few were measured at 18” plus/minus, a size that used to be unusual. The only problem with the float was the guide hatch. What a crowd! Seriously, there should be a much smaller limit. The cougar in camp early Wednesday morning was a new one for me, fortunately no damage was done. Of course, the lower D is a controversial and emotional issue for many. There’s still time to sign up for the annual Fisheries Workshop and get the latest science to form your own informed opinion.
The Deschutes steelhead season officially ranges from April 1 until March 31. Below is a table with the final returns of adult fish to the trap at the base of PGE/CTWS’s Pelton Round Butte complex of dams. There’s no way to sugar coat the news, it’s simply bleak. There were record low returns of steelhead across all categories (see the table below). Read More »
The Deschutes River Alliance has recently released a new video titled “A River Worth Fighting For” touching on their suit against Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. They spend more time illustrating economic hardship in Maupin which they attribute to those violations. While I am completely in favor of the Clean Water Act being enforced, and sympathetic to businesses who rely on tourism, I believe this video is misleading in many respects.Read More »
For over 20 years Portland General Electric and now the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have been hosting the Pelton Round Butte Fisheries Workshop. This is an annual gathering of state and federal agencies, NGOs, and the curious to review and discuss the latest science on the Deschutes and its tributaries. I have been going for a few years and find it fascinating. This year should have the usual updates on reintroduction and fisheries health, the final results of the macroinvertebrate study, and the results of the water quality study. It will be very interesting.
This year the workshop will be June 13 & 14 at Tetherow Resort in Bend. Everyone is welcome and I encourage you to attend. To get on the email list, contact Jessica Graeber (Jessica.Graeber@pgn.com).
At last year’s conference, I took over 7 pages of notes. Below are the highlights from those notes.Read More »
The lower Deschutes is an emotional subject for many with claims and counter claims often made by the many parties studying the issues affecting the river. A current example of this is Black Spot Disease. Technically an infection and not a disease, the black spots are caused by a parasite that exists across North America including many rivers in Oregon.Read More »
Last week Merrill Lynch Research released a “Climate Change Primer” outlining the challenges and potential investment opportunities climate change provides. Of course, climate change impacts our fisheries as well. The Merrill Lynch report begins with the statement that climate change is the top global risk we face. Read More »