Incomplete historical records predating hatchery influence; and lack of basin wide habitat inventory keeps us from knowing the past or current carrying capacity for Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead in the Willamette. What we do know is that natural abundance was decimated by overharvest and habitat destruction over a century ago and many basins no longer sustain viable native populations of Spring Chinook or Winter Steelhead.
In the mid 1900’s thirteen Willamette Project dams were constructed, blocking access to the highest quality salmonid habitat in the basin. Several hatcheries were built and operate as mitigation for the loss of habitat caused by the construction and operation of the Willamette Project dams.
For Spring Chinook in the North Santiam, hatchery operations began as early as 1911, when adults were first captured for spawning, and has continued to this day. In the late 1990s the naturally produced portion of Spring Chinook in the North Santiam was estimated to be less than 5% of the total escapement. In recent years that percentage has increased, but percentage of hatchery fish on the spawning grounds (pHOS) have been in excess of 85%. Currently, the fishery is not managed in a manner that is sensitive to getting wild adult fish back to the spawning grounds, its focus rather, is on harvest and broodstock collection for the hatchery. Additionally, studies suggest that in recent years over 50% of the natural origin spawners that returned to the basin were progeny of hatchery origin fish, originating from adult fish trucked above Detroit Dam.
For Winter Steelhead, though hatchery releases in the UWB ended in the late 1990’s, a hatchery Summer Steelhead program continues to release about 120,000 Skamania stock fish per year into the North Santiam basin. Genetic integrity of the native Winter Steelhead population has been greatly compromised by interbreeding with early returning Summers and residualized hatchery offspring. Studies clearly indicate that hatchery Summer Steelhead programs have negative effects on wild Winter steelhead. One analysis showed a 27% decrease in wild Winter Steelhead associated with the occurrence of naturally spawning Summer Steelhead. Bycatch impacts of the Spring Chinook fishery on spawning and kelting Winter Steelhead is also of concern, due to the resulting undue stress and high mortality rates of catch and release practices. Recent returns of Winter Steelhead have reached historic lows across the region and are forecasted to continue along that trend. This will bring population abundances dangerously close to falling below a self sustaining threshold. Current management practices/strategies need to be re-evaluated to properly address these threats to the viability of the species.
- Re-establish a self-sustaining wild Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead populations.
- Wild fish, escapement based management for Spring Chinook in the North Santiam Watershed. Prioritize wild fish escapement over hatchery broodstock goals, modifying fisheries management decisions through the Willamette Biological Opinion.
- End Summer Steelhead program in North Santiam basin
- Volitional fish passage for both adults and juveniles at Detroit and Big Cliff dams: restoring historical access to the highest quality habitat in the basin and helping to build self-sustaining populations of Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead.
- Sport fishing regulation changes: full closure of recreational fishing during Winter Steelhead spawning and kelting (mid-March through mid-June), barbless/single hooks year round, bait use elimination/limitation (mid-March through mid-June)
Hundreds of thousands of the Wild Spring Chinook and Wild Winter Steelhead returning to the Columbia River used to be born out of the Upper Willamette. Over the course of the past 140 years wild salmon populations across the Willamette River basin have experienced dramatic declines in abundance and range. Wild Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead, which used to be so important for fisheries and cultural identity, are struggling to persist.
A Natural Origin Spring Chinook above Detroit Reservoir. Photo: Conrad Gowell
In healthy watersheds across the northern Pacific, wild fish runs are sustained by a minimum number of fish that successfully complete their lifecycle by spawning with one another under natural conditions. This is the salmon story we are all familiar with, but this is not the case in the Upper Willamette. There, adult Spring Chinook are predominantly spawned artificially in hatcheries with hundreds of thousands of their offspring released through pipes back into the river systems. When those hatchery salmon return, contrary to a wild fish’s contribution to the vitality and future of its species, they serve two purposes: (1) to be caught in a fishery (2) to be artificially spawned in fish hatcheries so the cycle can play out again. Wild salmon in Oregon, under hatchery influence for over 100 years, have endured population collapses across the Willamette basin with extirpations in numerous subbasins. And now, even though wild fish are on the brink of extinction, hatchery broodstock abundance is still prioritized over the health and recovery of wild fish.
Hatchery Spring Chinook rearing at Marion Forks Fish Hatchery. Photo: Conrad Gowell
Hatcheries are but one of many factors that contributed to the loss of a once thriving wild Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead population in the Willamette Basin. In the mid 1900’s, USACE failed to provide fish passage in the construction of several dams along the east side of the Willamette valley, thus blocking access to much of the highest quality habitat in the most historically productive systems. This further diminished a wild salmonid population already stressed by the impacts of hatchery competition, overharvest, and habitat destruction. The North Santiam, once home to an estimated 23% of the UWR Spring Chinook and 34% of UWR Winter Steelhead, lost an estimated 70% of its anadromous fish habitat with the Big Cliff and Detroit dams. In addition, discharge from the dams has resulted in unseasonable water temperatures and unnatural flow patterns degrading the aquatic habitat below, diminishing potential for both spawning and rearing of salmon. Tasked with addressing the negative impacts associated with the existence and operation of the dams, a Biological Opinion (BiOp) was drafted in 2008 by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) providing a set of proposed actions with timelines for implementation.The Corps has made little progress with planning and implementation of some actions, but for many of the most important issues, deadlines either have or will be missed. At Big Cliff and Detroit dams, though temporary operational temperature controls are beginning to be addressed, deadlines set by the 2008 BiOp for implementing a permanent solution will likely be missed. Similarly, the 2023 deadline for measures to secure safe downstream fish passage for outmigrating juveniles through the dams will likely not be met.
For nearly two decades efforts to re-establish Spring Chinook above Detroit dam through an adult outplanting ‘trap and haul’ program have provided non-volitional fish passage to the highest quality habitat within the historical anadromous range. Though this program has achieved some success despite the lack of safe downstream fish passage, the population has thus far been comprised purely of hatchery fish. Wild fish will not be utilized in this program until downstream fish passage issues are addressed at the dam. What’s troubling is that these runs are entirely dependent on human intervention and will never meet the definition a self-sustaining population. Only with volitional fish passage can viable, self-sustaining abundance be achieved.
Miles of prime spawning habitat lies inaccessible to Wild Winter Steelhead in the upper North Santiam Basin. Photo: Conrad Gowell