The state of steelhead with The Wild Steelhead Coalition

Steelhead numbers hit another low this winter, prompting state wildlife and fisheries officials to close catch and release fishing for all native runs. Fishbrain talked to the Wild Steelhead Coalition to determine the state of these amazing fish and what can be done.

The state of steelhead with The Wild Steelhead Coalition

(Banner photo Courtesy of California Sea Grant)

Snow lines the banks and hangs in the otherwise green conifers of Pacific Northwest rivers. The freezing cold water runs fast with a slight color to it and somewhere underneath it a silver bullet is running back to the exact spot it was born. But not for long.

Winter weather keeps most people huddled inside, praying for warmer weather on the horizon. For the steelhead angler, though, nothing brings more joy than standing in the middle of a river with numb fingertips, all in the hope of feeling the dip in a rod tip. Until now.

Steelhead returns are once again dismal in the Pacific Northwest. So dismal, in fact two classic steelhead rivers are closed again because of such low return of native fish.

The Sauk and Skagit rivers in northwestern Washington closed to fishing in late January due to low returns of native steelhead. 

The rivers were previously open to fishing for hatchery-raised fish, which tend to run up the river earlier than native fish, but did not meet a projected quota of native fish coming up. 

Conservation officials set a minimum of four thousand migrating native fish needed to hold a catch and release fishing season and this year’s run topped out under the four thousand mark. 

(Washington's Sauk River)

According to Greg Fitz of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, the 1980s regularly saw runs in the tens of thousands and pre WWII saw runs in the hundreds of thousands. 

The Wild Steelhead Coalition is a conservation group dedicated to increasing the return of wild steelhead to the waters of the West Coast.

The group is based out of Seattle and works to protect and improve steelhead habitat while promoting wild steelhead reproduction and building partnerships.

The group’s recent report titled “Now or Never” features a stark reality for steelhead, one in which action needs to happen promptly, unless we face the extinction of one of the greatest fish species the world will ever know.

The Sauk and Skagit Rivers are hardly the only rivers facing daunting problems, as steelhead numbers are just as bad in other, once thriving, river systems. The Columbia River Basin reported its worst run of steelhead ever recorded this year, with around 70,000 fish coming up the massive river system. Of those 70,000, only 25,000 were native fish, with the rest being hatchery raised. 

Fitz says all three river systems suffer from a multitude of problems affecting returning fish numbers. A series of dams slow the rivers into pools and warm the water to temperatures not suitable for coldwater steelhead, but also destruction of habitat, warming oceans and invasive species impede smolts and adult steelhead alike.

The dams also cause other, lesser known issues for young steelhead in that they are perfect ambush spots for invasive fish species. Walleye and smallmouth bass have been introduced to the Columbia River, for example, for their prowess as great sportfishing species. The smallies and walleye thrive in the deep warm pools created by the dams, ambushing smolts as they move through. 

These ambush grounds have been dubbed by steelhead anglers as the wall of walleye. 

Another invasive species outcompeting the native fish is the American shad. Shad are native to the East Coast, but after being transplanted in the West now make up the largest biomass in the Columbia River Basin.

According to Fitz, dams and invasives aren't the only problems resulting in low fish returns. 

The Skeena river in British Columbia is relatively free of the issues plaguing the Skagit, Sauk and Columbia river, yet it too saw the lowest number of steelhead returning in recorded history and according to the Steelhead Coalition, anglers need to be on the frontlines for solutions.

“Steelhead are resilient and amazing but we need to stop pretending that they are ok,'' Fitz says. “Anglers have to lead the charge because the general public and politicians don't understand how important these fish are.”

As grim as the current reality is, the Wild Steelhead Coalition still offers an enthusiastic hope that their favorite fish species can and will return. 

“It means making investments in habitat, taking out dams when we can, looking at cold water and removing these invasive species,” Fitz says.

One example of success was the removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington. Before the dam was constructed, almost 400,000 salmon and steelhead migrated up the river. In the last decade, however, those numbers plummeted to merely 4,000 salmon and almost no steelhead.

In 2014 the dam was completely removed from the system and in just a few short years, local fisheries biologists have seen an incredible return of fish to the system. The summer runs are even considered some of the (if not the) strongest runs in all of Washington.

“When you give them a chance they are amazing,” Fitz says.

Other issues still plague steelhead and salmon runs like warming oceans, lack of food and surging sea lion populations, but as long as there are anglers who love these amazing fish, there will always be champions fighting for their return.

“Wild fish are resilient and wild fish are diverse. Where we can we have to do some work to hang on to them. Where we can, we have to do some work to hang on to them.” Fitz says. “Being a steelheader comes with responsibilities, or else we are just going to let these fish slip away forever. If you love steelhead and you love steelhead water, you need to do something.”

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