Updated 9:12 a.m., Saturday, February 11, 2023 in the first and third paragraphs.
Another year, another poor Columbia summer steelhead run – possibly an all-time worst – with fishery restrictions again expected.
Statemanagers say only 63,400 A- and B-runs will return starting in July, a grim forecast marking what would be an eighth straight year of low returns.
The prediction does come with “considerable uncertainty,” given that 2022’s run was 23 percent higher than expected and 2021’s was 31 percent below the forecast, but if it comes to pass, it would also be the fewest Inland Northwest-bound steelhead since counting began at Bonneville Dam in 1938, as pointed out by a source and confirmed via Columbia River DART and Fish Passage Center data.
The forecast breaks down as 55,400 A-runs (17,300 wild) and 8,000 B-runs (1,300 wild).
“Given the continuing trend of poor returns, anglers should anticipate steelhead fishing restrictions and closures in the mainstem Columbia River and tributaries in 2023, similar to previous years – including broad area and time closures, one-steelhead bag limits when open, and thermal angling sanctuaries near tributary mouths upstream of Bonneville,” ODFW stated in an announcement released yesterday. “Collectively, these regulations have further reduced the take of ESA-listed wild fish and increased hatchery escapements to help hatcheries collect sufficient broodstock.”
Many of these steelhead are headed for the Snake River and Idaho, Southeast Washington and Northeast Oregon tributaries, and ODFW notes that having to navigate past eight dams going both up- and downstream means they “consistently have lower life-cycle survival rates than mid-Columbia steelhead which only have to pass three or four dams.”
Along with the hydropower system, freshwater habitat issues, predation and warm ocean conditions are believed to have significant influences on the stocks, according to ODFW.
On that last factor, where many Northwest salmonids head north to near-shore pastures in the Gulf of Alaska, steelhead tend to head straight out “into waters that have been unusually warm and less productive recently,” the agency notes.
Up through 2015 – the year of the Blob, that massive marine heatwave, in the North Pacific – the 10-year average return of A- and B steelhead was over 330,000 fish annually, but in the years since, the run has been averaging roughly 92,000.
If there’s hope, it’s how well 2022’s fish performed relative to expectations, specifically B-runs. Only 15,600 of these larger steelhead that typically spend an extra year fattening up at sea were expected but 40,278 actually returned, the most since 2010-11. They’ve provided good fishing in Idaho’s Clearwater this winter, and they were on the girthy side too.
“Normally, B-runs average 32 to 34 inches, but we have been catching more 36- to 40-inch fish than in past years,” guide Travis Wendt told our Jeff Holmes for a January article in Northwest Sportsman.
The unexpected showing helped power 2022-23’s overall run to 116,969 As and Bs, the most since 2016. But for 2022-23, just over half that figure is forecast.
Besides the mainstem Columbia, ODFW last year also restricted angling in Oregon’s mid-Gorge tributaries like the Deschutes, John Day and Umatilla, where the agency says impacts are higher and necessitated “drastic steps to conserve wild steelhead in these mixed stock fisheries.”
Rivers closer to steelhead hatcheries or spawning grounds were less restricted.
ODFW says that “few additional fishery-restricting actions remain available” and nontreaty commercial fall salmon fisheries in the Lower Columbia last year came in “very low and well-below ESA impact limits: 0.54% or 103 mortalities for A-index; 0.45 % or 8 mortalities for B-index.”
Final regulations for 2023-24 will be set through the upcoming North of Falcon season-setting process, though they can be tweaked either way as returns come in and officials update the run size in August and September.