Steelhead numbers, wins and struggles with the Wild Steelhead Coalition

Fishbrain sits down with the Wild Steelhead Coalition to discuss news regarding wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. We talk numbers coming up rivers, any success stories from 2022, struggles and community engagement.

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Steelhead numbers, wins and struggles with the Wild Steelhead Coalition

Wild steelhead are again completing their yearly cycle by running up West Coast rivers to spawn. The last few decades saw massive decreases in wild steelhead populations from California to British Columbia, with some entire fisheries collapsing. All is not doom and gloom with these wild fish, however. Dam removal plans, public engagement and fisheries policies are making strides to help protect fish numbers every year.

The Wild Steelhead Coalition closely monitors these issues and attempts to help form policies that benefit the fish, while engaging the public. Fishbrain caught up with Brian Bennett of the coalition, to talk about the current steelhead runs, numbers and news regarding this amazing species.

Fishbrain: The Skagit and Sauk Rivers and the entire Olympic Peninsula were abruptly shut down, due to low wild steelhead numbers last year. Columbia River numbers were also extremely poor as well as the Skeena’s in British Columbia. Is there any good news coming out of 2022, or heading into 2023?

Brian Bennett: The process that happened with the coastal steelhead (after the season was abruptly canceled due to low returning fish numbers), I think is a win. There's transparency with the regulation process now and the average person is getting involved. People’s mindsets have seemed to shift from thinking that state wildlife officials don't know what they’re doing to how can “I” help fisheries agencies get the resources they need.

Fishbrain: Will the Skagit and, or Sauk get seasons for wild fish this year?

Bennett: The regulations state those rivers need 4k fish to execute a recreational fishery. They got 5,800 last year, but they miscounted initially, leading to the shutdown. This year fisheries officials are predicting 5,300-5,800. The recreational management plan permit for those rivers expired however. So the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had to reapply for a new RMP to the feds, which is needed to fish over species listed under the endangered species act. The permit went to public comment, so we are just waiting for a decision, which could, unfortunately, take some time and risk missing out on the season.

Fishbrain: The numbers through Bonneville Dam looked better this year. Is this a good sign, or an anomaly?

Bennett: It was a better year, but the average is still not great. The  real danger is us shifting our baselines to make these poor numbers look better than they are. 

Fishbrain note: While the total number of steelhead that came through Bonneville dam fish counter in 2022 was 117,487 up from the 68,647 in 2021, but the five year average is still 91,524 fish.

Fishbrain: Deconstruction of four Dams on the Klamath River, which runs through southern Oregon and northern California is scheduled for this year. This project has been an ongoing battle for decades and should do wonders for returning salmon and steelhead populations. What are some of the immediate expectations for this removal, regarding fish numbers?

Bennett: Look at the Elwha Dam for reference. We will start by looking at the fish that are coming back, then check on what the habitat looks like. In the short term you will see drastic changes to the habitat with the massive release of water and the erosion that will come with it. Major amounts of sediment will come down making an initial mess. You’re probably going to see that river bounce back initially, but it will be about a generation before you see the big rebound of fish expected.

Fishbrain Notes: The Elwha River had two dams blocking around 45 miles of river, preventing salmon and steelhead from moving up into their historical spawning grounds. Fish numbers plummeted with the construction of the dams, going from 400,000 in the early 1900s to merely 3,000 after the dams’ construction blocked much of the river and its tributaries. The two dams were removed, starting in 2011 and quickly saw species move into habitat that was blocked for over a century.

Fishbrain: A lot of what the Wild Steelhead Coalition advocates for is the proliferation of wild fish and far less hatchery-raised fish in rivers. Many steelhead rivers seem to have a hatchery season and a wild season (at least as far as when a run enters the river) so if hatchery-raised fish are so problematic, should anglers fish these hatchery seasons, thereby in a way supporting the hatcheries?

Bennett: The best hatchery is a healthy river. Wild fish are more resilient and better prepared to adapt to changing river conditions and climate. Many of these early hatchery runs that show up before the wild runs are actually replacing historic wild runs too. So there are massive problems with hatchery fish, but that being said, hatchery fish are the perfect fish for harvesting if you want to keep a steelhead for the grill. So yes, fish it, but don't  let these hatchery fish replace the wild populations. 

It’s now, or never, in the fight to protect one of the greatest game fish and overall species the world has ever known. Learn more about the ongoing battle to protect wild steelhead and what you can do to help, or educate yourself further, make sure and check out The Wild Steelhead Coalition’s website here.

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