Wild Willamette Steelhead in Peril

From the Conservation Angler

For Immediate Release: Monday, August 7, 2017 David Moskowitz, Executive Director, The Conservation Angler 971-235-8953
Bill M. Bakke, Conservation Director, The Conservation Angler

The Conservation Angler shares the conservation concerns about wild Willamette River Winter Steelhead: ODFW must address more than sea lions
While seals and sea lions at Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam are a serious concern and warrant action, ODFW is ignoring a multiplicity of other impacts to wild steelhead in Willamette and throughout the lower Columbia River.

The Conservation Angler believes that actions to reduce predation by sea lions and
seals at man-made obstacles like the fish ladder at Willamette Falls are warranted given the huge regional investments in salmon and watershed recovery in the Willamette.
However, there are a many other factors that are within the authority of ODFW to address right now, without waiting for Congress to act.
ODFW releases hundreds of thousands of non-native hatchery summer steelhead into Willamette River tributaries. Hatchery smolts are large when released and many thousands never migrate out of the rivers. These residualized river smolt prey heavily on juvenile spring chinook and winter steelhead.

ODFW releases tens of thousands of hatchery trout into reservoirs over which they are also re-introducing spring chinook and winter steelhead to help the native fish access historic spawning and rearing habitat. These “catchable trout also prey on the out- migrating spring chinook and winter steelhead.
ODFW permits angling on the hatchery summer steelhead and spring salmon using bait and barbed hooks during the time when winter steelhead are staging and spawning. ODFW cannot calculate the catch and release mortality on wild winter fish encountered in the hatchery summer steelhead fishery.

ODFW authorizes winter and spring gillnet seasons that target spring chinook, but which take place without monitors to help evaluate the handle and mortality on winter steelhead in the lower Columbia River.

All of the above factors have contributed to the decline and prevented true recovery of these ESA-listed fish.
The Conservation Angler would like ODFW to take Dr. Clements’ statement to heart across the range of responsibility the agency has to protect native and fish and wildlife. He said “We are at a point where any more delays in the Willamette may condemn this run to extinction,” Clements said. “We need to act now or extinction may be our legacy.”

The Conservation Angler could not agree more. ###
Background: Willamette Winter Steelhead Trends and Abundance
The trends for wild winter steelhead in the lower Columbia and Willamette River have been somewhat steady over the past ten years, though the overall trend is down.

The previous low return was 1996 when only 1,800 wild winter steelhead passed over Willamette Falls. It is unknown how many wild fish were produced in the Willamette historically.
The most recent ten-year average has been 5,618 wild winter steelhead over the Falls. The most recent five-year average is 5,639 wild winter steelhead.
The Willamette Falls fish count of winter steelhead for the 2016-2017 run year totaled
822 winter steelhead over the Willamette Falls Fishway between November 1 and May 31. There may be hatchery winter steelhead that pass through the fish ladder and that may be why ODFW reports that there were only 512 wild winter steelhead that passed over Willamette Falls.
Steelhead and spring chinook can also ascend Willamette Falls without using the Fishway. The fact that some hatchery winter fish may be part of the fish ladder count, and that both wild and hatchery fish may ascend the Falls without being counted, makes it difficult to use these passage numbers as completely accurate measures of population health and abundance.
When Upper Willamette River wild winter steelhead received an ESA listing in 1999, almost 7,000 fish crossed over the Falls.

ODFW’s website reports in 2014 that wild winter steelhead over Willamette Falls averaged over 6,000 fish for the previous ten years. During that period, they ranged from a low of 2,813 fish to a high of 7,616 wild winter fish.

The number of winter steelhead returning to the Willamette was quite high in the 1960s through the 1980s, though there were also hatchery winter steelhead mixed in with those returns.

What seems clear is that the numbers of wild winter steelhead have been declining as the number of hatchery summer steelhead grew, particularly from 1990 to the present.
The link below is for Willamette Falls Annual Fish Passage Counts from 1946 to 2016.

The Take Home Points:

1. ODFW has contributed to the decline of threatened winter steelhead by running a revenue fetching fishing program for non- native hatchery steelhead rather than recovery for endangered native steelhead. Irresponsible.

2. ODFW releases so many hatchery summer steelhead that cause competition and predation for threatened winter steelhead they have asked anglers to fish for hatchery steelhead smolts, a fishery that also kills wild winter steelhead smolts.

3. Seal and Sea Lions were not solely responsible for the low 2017 return. Predation on salmon and steelhead by marine mammals reaches a critical impact when the return is as low as counted and the number of marine mammals is high. The
question is how did the Willamette Winter Steelhead population drop from over 5,778 in 2016 to less than 900 in 2017? Again the low return in 2017 was not caused solely nor principally by marine mammals. By lumping all the negatives on sea lion predation ODFW has found a cover up for their own incompetence.

4. Federal enforcement of the Endangered Species Act recovery of threatened winter steelhead has purposely failed, giving ODFW the green light to promote the extinction of winter steelhead rather than their recovery. Shameful and illegal.

5. The Conservation Angler supports marine mammal management to prevent the serious depletion of ESA-listed wild salmon and steelhead at human-caused bottlenecks, but this action must be accompanied by addressing ALL causes of decline.

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2 Responses to Wild Willamette Steelhead in Peril

  1. Marvin Beckman says:

    Another species that needs to be controlled are the cormorants. Each one will eat
    4 to 5 salmon and steelhead smolts per day.

  2. Owen K Steere says:

    The idea that unusually large flows caused winter steelhead to not use the fish ladder is not supported by the evident low summer steelhead counts also when flows were lower. The other suggestion that hatchery smolts negatively impact native counts (to the degree that the low counts suggest) are any more significant than in past years is not convincing either. As to the predation idea would not a population of hatchery fish in fact provide “cover” for native fish. If I was a native fish having a hatchery fish be an alternative target for a seal would in fact increase my odds. This obvious fact is never discussed. So the predation argument in combination with the idea that the very presence of hatchery fish is decidedly a negative for natives is not as clear cut as some native fish advocates would suggest. I would in no way suggest that I don’t believe that our fish hatchery practices have been at odds with the goal of native fish restoration. Quite the contrary. It just seems to me that there is one huge possible factor that is easily identifiable in explaining the precipitous drop in fish counts beginning in the winter of 2016 – the absurdly hot water temperatures of summer 2015. I am no fish biologist but from what I have read one of the distinctions between salmon and steelhead is that steelhead can spend much more of their life cycle (up to 100%) in fresh water. Therefore the hot Willamette water would have been deadly for salmonids as was observed by those who saw the floating carcasses during summer 2015. Also in the ocean was the warm water “Blob” in that year in which the migrating adults might have starved to death in an ocean devoid of food. As salmon and steelhead have somewhat different migrating routes depending on species the part of the Pacific where steelhead went might have been especially dead. As it turned out the springer run was not remarkably low albeit late. They may have not occupied such a depleted part of the ocean. But they are exposed to the same negative factors as steelhead in the Willamette. It is in no way suggested here that aggressive measures are not called for in saving this immeasurably precious part of our wild ecosystem. In fact the idea that native fish advocates push that they and they alone are the answer to preservation is in contrast to the fact that many of them are fans of “catch and release” as a supposedly more enlightened approach. No fish was ever made better by having had itself impaled in the mouth with a hook and dragged half or all the way to death. If we are serious about conservation nothing should be left out of the debate. The real soultions to this crisis lay beyond silly debates about seals and hatchery fish although no serious person would suggest that harm is not done here. It’s just that seals have always been here and if it were not for hatcheries given the human interactions with fish the last one would have been hooked, gaffed, or netted long ago. If preservation of these creatures is a genuine goal economics and turf protecting simply can no longer be a driver of policy to the extent that it presently is. Hard, hard choices need to be made that are going to require a lot of sacrifice on the part of humans, choices that we may not like but are nothing in terms of sacrifice that nature has already made for the human race.

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