Just got off the phone awhile ago with Glen Mendell, a state fisheries biologist in Southeast Washington. He says that in January anglers should watch for word on the dates and locations of one or two public meetings on the future of steelhead management in the Blue Mountains.
He’s rewriting harvest plans for rivers around the region — a process that began earlier this year but was sidelined as other brush fires came up — and says they will blend genetic plans required by the Feds with revisions to state hatchery practices.
“It may affect the number of fish coming back in the future,” Mendell admits.
But he claims that that’s only half the story.
While managers must address ESA requirements to recover listed wild stocks of steelhead, they must also balance that with angler harvest as part of mitigation for installation of the four lower Snake River dams.
“You can’t just do one or the other,” Mendell says.
The reason to watch this one closely is that the Ronde is one of the state’s best steelhead streams, putting out thousands upons thousands of summer-runs for fly guys, bait chuckers and plug pullers from September through April. Preliminary and final estimated catch stats from WDFW show that over 55,000 hatchery fish have been hauled ashore here over the past 13 seasons.
Season Total catch
It’s rather ironic, but part of the problem according to Mendell is too many hatchery steelhead returning the 600 or so miles from saltwater to the Ronde. Only 1,500 are required back to Cottonwood Creek, about 2 miles upstream from the Highway 129 bridge and Boggan’s Oasis, but far more than that have been coming back.
They may be spawning in the wild, diluting the genes of native steelhead in the Basin. And while the Ronde’s hatchery stock is known as “Wallowa” fish, they’re a composite of A- and B-runs from all over the Snake River basin, collected in the early 1980s in the lower river rather than in the Ronde itself.
Asked point blank if the plan rewrite means the end of steelheading on the Grande Ronde and other Blue Mountain streams, Mendell replies, “No, no. I don’t think there’s any chance we’re going to shut down all fishing.”
But he went on: “There are some places that may get shut down or limited, but we won’t know until the end of the process.”
That process includes the rewrite, as well as working with local tribes and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and then presenting options to the public, he says.
“Do you have any ideas?” Mendell asks of steelheaders and the public. “We do want to get public input. We’d like to have them attend.”