What Happened to All the Steelhead?
We have had our share of gut punches over the past few weeks and it has taken the wind out of our sails for certain. It took me more than three weeks to write this report - and this is more of a blog post about the steelhead situation and less about trout. I just posted a trout fishing report - and that will be a whole lot cheerier than what you are about to read.
The entire Deschutes River from Warm Springs to the confluence with the Columbia River is closed to steelhead fishing and steelhead retention. This announcement was made by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on September 29 - giving us a whopping two days to contact clients already booked for the month of October. These anglers had airline tickets purchased, fishing licenses purchased, hotel rooms booked, etc. but they wanted to come to the Deschutes for one thing - to swing flies for steelhead and to carefully release each and every steelhead they hooked. Many of our clients cancelled their trips and the economy of our small town is feeling the pain. The hotels are empty, the restaurants are missing the throngs of steelheaders, the campgrounds and RV parks are vacant, and the retail stores (definitely the fishing stores) are hurting.
In September, we were allowed to swing flies for steelhead above Sherar's Falls, but that closed on October 1. You are now not allowed to fish for steelhead or salmon above Sherar's Falls, however, you are allowed to swing or fish for salmon below Sherar's Falls - not steelhead. What this means to many, as we have witnessed for the past few weeks, is business as usual. Anglers are out there actively fishing for steelhead in whatever manner thy have always fished for steelhead, but they are now doing so under the guise of fishing for salmon. As long as they don't kill a steelhead, they can catch and release them as accidental by-catch.
Unbelievably, our mayor called ODFW to voice concerns about the steelhead closure, and the ODFW person said something to the effect of, "Hey, people can still fish for them and they can say they are fishing for salmon" So, they know that their rules are completely unenforceable.
It seems to me that ODFW took this action just to say they "did something" when they were under pressure from one guide and a few non-profit fish organizations to "do something" to protect steelhead. Slapping a mosquito on your arm is about as effective in the fight to end malaria as ODFW's action on the Deschutes is to protect steelhead.
What is going on with steelhead in the Deschutes? A better question to ask is: "What is going on with steelhead up and down the west coast of the US, in all of British Columbia, and in Alaska?" Why are they all disappearing?
Is it the dams? Well, dams don't help, but we have had record returns in the Columbia with the dams present AND some of the rivers in BC that are in trouble are completely undammed - like the Skeena, Bulkley, Maurice, the Dean, the Babine, etc. There isn't a river in all of BC that isn't feeling the pain of a dramatic downturn in steelhead populations.
Is it the pressure from the fishing public? Well, that certainly plays a role, but there are a lot of rivers in BC that are highly regulated, require single barbless hooks and catch and release fishing and limit the number of anglers per year as well as the number of days anglers can fish the river - yet the steelhead numbers in these remote places with the strictest of protections are WAY DOWN.
Is it global warming? Global warming is certainly having an impact on the warmth of our rivers as well as on the warmth of the ocean. This is a favorite scapegoat of fisheries managers because they can just throw their hands in the air and say - "Global Warming and Climate Change are causing all the problems and there is nothing that we can do about it." Nobody knows exactly how large of an impact global warming is having, but we can all agree that it is having some impact.
Is it commercial fishing? Well, it would be very difficult to argue that commercial fishing does not play a significant role in the demise of our steelhead populations. Nobody really knows exactly where steelhead go when they head out into the ocean, but they do go straight out rather than hugging the shore as Coho tend to do (and thus Coho are faring a lot better in their ocean survival).
The North Pacific is a vast portion of the ocean and one that is fished heavily by legal and also by illegal fishing vessels from around the Pacific Rim. Some of the illegal vessels have been caught dragging gill nets five miles long, which entangle and ensnare everything in their path from dolphins to seabirds to everything else that swims. In one online article I saw from 2018, an illegal fishing vessel from China was caught with 80 tons of chum salmon onboard. 80 tons. That's 160,000 pounds of salmon - probably equal to 16,000 fish. One illegal boat did serious damage to a population of chum and that was only ONE boat that got CAUGHT. I heard rumor (can't find verification online) that a Japanese boat was caught with 80,000 pounds of steelhead which would mean 9,000-10,000 fewer steelhead in their particular drainage. One illegal fishing boat could wipe out the entire steelhead population of a couple of rivers.
We do know that BILLIONS of hatchery-raised Pink Salmon are planted every year in the Pacific. These fish are planted by many countries encircling the North Pacific, and they are released into the ocean in order to bolster the catch rates of the growing legions of commercial fishing boats. These voracious salmon eat photo plankton, krill, small fish, and anything else they can wrap their lips around - the hatchery Pink Salmon basically decimate the food chain the in North Pacific and leave absolutely nothing for the steelhead or Chinook salmon to eat. Thanks to these huge and growing number of fish hatcheries, there are now way more fish in the Pacific than the Pacific can support. Global warming exacerbates the problem, and nobody knows just how big the warm blob is and how much damage it has done to the food chain, but commercial fishing is out of control and the tipping point has been reached. Steelhead are the losers.
As if facing commercial nets in the ocean were bad enough, the fish migrating up the Columbia River have to run the gauntlet of fishing boats and gill nets. The Columbia River is strewn with gill nets, both treaty and non-treaty gill nets. We know that we cannot go back on the treaty rights established with the tribes in the Boldt decision of 1974. The tribes have the right to take 50% of the fish migrating up the Columbia River. The non-treaty gill nets have to go. Are we going to stand idly by and watch our steelhead go extinct so that a handful of commercial guys can pad their bank accounts?
Recreational steelhead fishing is closed now in the entire Skeena River system in British Columbia. They have the worst return of steelhead in their 7 decades of keeping records. This mirrors the steelhead return that we are seeing in the Columbia River system. What are the common links between the two regions? Our steelhead migrate out into the same North Pacific ocean and both populations must run the gauntlet of commercial fishing nets targeting salmon. It is very frustrating to know that commercial salmon net fisheries are prioritized by the managing agencies and they are allowed to continue to net and kill all anadromous salmonids while recreational anglers are sent to the proverbial bench to sit out the steelhead season.
Not everyone is made to sit on the bench, however. WDFW hasn't closed the Klickitat, nor have they closed the Grande Ronde. Anglers who might have fished the Deschutes or John Day Rivers are flocking to those places to fish for the last of the Columbia River steelhead. Idaho is going to continue to allow harvest of one hatchery steelhead per day on rivers like the Clearwater, Salmon and Snake. Fishing for salmon will close for the season on the Deschutes on October 31. All fishing on the John Day River is closed from October 31 through the end of the year. Steelhead fishing is closed on the John Day River from September through the end of the year.
Steelhead anglers have always been nearly as migratory as the fish we chase. There was always a steelhead destination on the horizon - maybe it was a desert river, maybe one deep in a rainforest, or maybe one that cut through the mountains and drained into the ocean under the towering watch of the granite mountains. Anglers with the big bank accounts tended to migrate north to the lodges and rivers that were fly-in only. These lodges had short windows for their steelhead seasons and such limited space that you often had to wait for a regular old timer to hang up his waders or, God forbid, pass on, before a spot opened up, and one might be moved from the waiting list.
When one river had poor steelhead returns for a couple of years, the migrating steelhead anglers would move on to a new destination. They could always find some farther-flung lodge, or more remote tent camp somewhere up in BC that would take their $$. Now, it doesn't matter if you have a private jet, billions of dollars, and all the connections in the world - steelhead are hurting everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. It turns out, you can't always buy good steelhead fishing. The rivers are closed to steelhead anglers and the prospect of them opening again next year are grim.
The few rivers that are faring better are in Southern Oregon and Northern California - maybe because the steelhead populations migrate out of these rivers and stay further south where the food stocks are better and the commercial netting impacts are less severe. Amazingly, ODFW will still allow anglers to kill wild steelhead in southern Oregon on certain rivers - the only place in the world where you can kill a wild, native steelhead. This has to be changed.
When the Deschutes was closed to steelhead fishing at the end of August, I was really annoyed that ODFW would wait so long to do anything. Why would they drop this closure on us with 2-3 days notice? Then, we had hope that the river would open again in October, but we found out with only two days left in September that the entire river was closed to retention of and fishing for steelhead. Maybe they wanted to be sure that people had already purchased their fishing license (no refunds, SORRY!).
It seems to me that none of the managing agencies have any interest in the well-being of wild steelhead. The number of anglers who purchase a fishing license in hopes of catching and releasing wild steelhead is miniscule compared to the sheer numbers of anglers who want to target salmon or hatchery fish that they can put in their cooler. Commercial net fishermen want salmon and salmon only - wild steelhead are an annoying by-catch. Dead steelhead are often shoveled out of the boat quietly in the night so they can't be accounted for. The commercial and tribal gill-netters in the Columbia River do not have any enforcement officers on board to see to it that they abide by the rules. We have to take their word for it that they have accounted for the wild steelhead killed in their gill-nets, and that they will cease fishing once they reach their quota for the number of ESA listed dead steelhead has been reached.
I am stunned after watching the Oregon Fish Commission meeting last Friday where the debate was ongoing about whether or not they should continue to allow the harvest of WILD STEELHEAD in Southern Oregon. The testimony in the meeting has been overwhelmingly in favor of catch and release fishing. Unfortunately, I have seen enough of these meetings to know that most members on the fish commission have already made up their minds about which way they are going to vote. The public input and comment period makes the public feel good and feel as though their opinions matter, but rarely do any of the commissioners listen or allow public commentary to sway their vote.
Alex Gonsiewski testified at the Commission meeting on Friday and made a valid and solid point that ODFW should take into consideration - or, should have taken into consideration years ago that wild steelhead are more valuable alive than in the bottom of a cooler. Thousands of anglers from the Pacific Northwest and, for that matter, from around the country, want the experience of fishing over wild fish in a wild and pristine environment. They are willing to pay for that experience because that experience has VALUE. Many anglers pay upwards of $8,000 - $10,000 per week to helicopter in or fly in to remote rivers in British Columbia and Alaska and stay in lodges where they can swing flies over nothing but wild steelhead and wild salmon. Single Barbless hooks are required, catch and release is mandatory, and numbers of guided clients on a river are capped in order to keep the quality experience for all.
Let's look at the situation just north of us in British Columbia. Rivers in British Columbia are rated by a class system and anglers pay for a fishing license and pay additionally per day a fee to fish on these rivers. The daily fee may cost $20 or it may cost $40. People are willing to trek to these places and pay those fees for the chance of hooking and releasing a chrome-bright wild steelhead. ODFW is missing the boat in their management because Oregon could be seeing the same high-dollar tourism anglers.
ODFW could manage a handful of rivers in Oregon as native steelhead sanctuaries. Other rivers could be managed as hatchery rivers for people who want to harvest fish. The harvest card - which is being transitioned into an electronic form in the MYODFW app - could be managed in a revolutionary way. Instead of buying a harvest card for $46 and being allowed to kill 20 steelhead or salmon or combination of the two (essentially paying $2.30 per fish), ODFW could set a value on the fish and charge accordingly. Example: an angler catches a chinook salmon weighing 20 lbs. After filleting a 20 lb salmon, you have about 12 lbs of meat with a market value of about $28 per pound. That fish is worth $336 if you were to buy it in a grocery store - so why does ODFW only consider the worth of that fish to be $2.30? Shouldn't a tag to harvest a chinook be more expensive? It is the most sought after of all the salmon. It is, arguably, the most delicious of all salmon. Wouldn't it be fair to charge, say, $75 to tag and keep a chinook? Other fish could be valued differently according to species. A coho might be $30, a hatchery steelhead $50, and so forth. When you decide to take the fish home, you mark the tag and your account is automatically charged.
Considering how much money is invested in the infrastructure of hatcheries and what each hatchery salmon or steelhead actually costs by the time it returns as an adult, it seems to me that pricing these fish more in line with their market value would be a better way for ODFW to fund their budget. It costs me $430 to fish for one week in British Columbia to catch and release wild steelhead – but for a little over $100 in Oregon I can fish any river I want for the entire calendar year and put 20 salmon or steelhead in my freezer. ODFW needs to step up to the modern day and price these licenses accordingly.
A lot of people will get angry seeing this post, no doubt, but I am not proposing that we price people out of fishing. You can fish to your heart’s content on any river in Oregon for the standard price of a fishing license, as long as you are catching and releasing fish. If you want to fish for salmon and steelhead but you do not want to kill them, you will have to purchase a tag (just in case you deep hook one or somehow injure the fish despite your best efforts) and the money from the tag will cover the 5% catch and release mortality. I do not propose that the new system would limit anyone’s ability to fish. The new system would go a step towards making sure that the fish that you stack in your cooler are valued. I dare say, there will be a lot fewer fish sitting in freezers, getting freezer burn, and being thrown in the garbage if they cost real money to put on the table.