Most Improved Wild Fish Rivers

Looking back on 2015, we have much to celebrate as a result of collaborative actions taken to protect and recover wild, native fish across the Northwest. Undoubtedly wild fish advocates must stay alert and vigilant to defend against the many threats facing wild fish on a daily basis, but it is equally important for us to take the time to recognize that the hard work needed to recover these iconic species is happening all around us and it pays off. Improvements in the health of wild, native fish can happen and the science based investments were making today will result in the resurgence of wild, native fish in the future.

In this spirit, every new year we take a look back and celebrate the past year's achievements and the many local groups, tribal communities, River Stewards and public agencies that work to protect and restore wild, native fish. This year you win see that our 11 Most Improved Wild Fish Rivers list includes areas where each of the 4 H's Habitat, Hatcheries, Hydropower, and Harvest have been addressed. We are proud to report that Native Fish Society River Stewards actively work on 10 of the watersheds found on this year's list.

Actions that qualify a river to make our 11 Most Improved Wild Fish Rivers list include:

  • A resurgence, or continuation, of self-sustaining populations of wild, native fish.
  • Hatchery reform that incorporates the best available science to minimize the impacts of hatchery fish on wild fish populations.
  • Habitat protections or improvements that will safeguard and rebuild wild, native fish populations into the future.
  • Harvest regulations that maximize spawner abundance and limit the recreational and commercial impacts to wild, native fish.

To keep the momentum building, we've also added a 2016 action item for each of the 11 Most Improved Wild Fish Rivers. So celebrate this year's 11 Most Improved Wild Fish Rivers with us and let's keep these accomplishments growing into another big year for wild, native fish!

By: Doug DeRoy, Garcia & Navarro River Steward

1. Mendocino Coast, CA

Species: Winter Steelhead

  1. Improvement: New Low Flow Angling Regulations
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Habitat Degradation
  3. Action Item: Defend Second Growth Redwoods from Logging

Two years of diligent effort, led by native Fish Society and the National Marine Fisheries Service, to improve the low flow triggers for California's North-Central coast streams, ended with success. The Native Fish Society worked with local stakeholders and biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife to design a more effective low flow trigger based on the best available science. The new low flow trigger, approved in 2015, protects ESA-listed wild steelhead from angling pressure during dry periods by reacting to the coat's dynamic seasonal flows. As a result, threatened steelhead are protected when they're at their most vulnerable.

By: Chris Smith, North Coast State Forest Coalition

2. Kilchis River, OR

Species: Winter Steelhead, Fall Chinook & Chum Salmon

  1. Improvement: Wild Fish Emphasis Area through the Coastal Management Plan
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Private and State Forest Logging Practices
  3. Action Item: Proposed Kilchis and Wilson River Conservation Area

Aggressive logging has battered most watersheds on Oregon's coast. The Kilchis has seen its fair share, but most of its watershed is in public holdings, so it remains one of the most intact watersheds in the region. With the recent adoption of the Coastal Management Plan, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife established the Kilchis as a Wild Fish Emphasis Area to maintain the genetic diversity of its wild salmon and steelhead populations. To further protect these fish, we're asking the Oregon Department of Forestry to work with landowners and create the Kilchis and Wilson Conservation Area.

By: Paul Engelmeyer, Mid-Oregon Coast District Coordinator

3. Yaquina River, OR

Species: Chinook & Coho Salmon, Winter Steelhead & Cutthroat Trout

  1. Improvement: Collaboration between Wetlands Conservancy, MidCoast Watershed Council, Pacific Forest Trust, Siuslaw National Forest, and ODFW for Beaver Creek, Mill, and Wright Creek restoration projects.
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Forest practices and Clean Water Act Implementation
  3. Action Item: Ongoing habitat improvements for salmon, steelhead, forage fish and shorebirds.

Past land use practices have altered the natural processes that historically contributed wood material to the streams and estuaries throughout Oregon’s central coast. As a result, in-stream wood and native vegetation in the floodplains that provide essential habitat for rearing, spawning and feeding for salmon are missing. This project placed nearly 600 large plantation trees via helicopter in 9 miles of stream and in 4 acres of tidal channels and marshes to improve habitat for salmon, steelhead, marine/forage fish and other wildlife species. Thousands of other native trees and shrubs will be planted along the streams and in wetlands later this winter.

By: Ian Fergusson, Salmonberry River Steward

4. Salmonberry River, OR

Species: Coho Salmon & Winter Steelhead

  1. Improvement: Stopped the illegal reconstruction of the Scenic Railroad and persuaded the Salmonberry Corridor planning team to drop plans for a paved trail along the Salmonberry River.
  2. Ongoing challenges: Salmonberry Trail development; partial railroad reconstruction (if permits are issued); increased clearcut logging on State and private forestland
  3. Action items: Work with the North Coast State Forest Coalition to provide input during development of the revised State Forest Management Plan; Provide additional comments on the Salmonberry Corridor Trail.

We discovered the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad conducting unpermitted fill/removal work just as the winter steelhead spawning season was beginning. We notified the Division of State Lands; both DSL and the Corps of Engineers issued cease and desist orders. This case is still in the courts. We also issued comments on the proposed plans to develop a multi-use trail, resulting in a change of plans to allow for a primitive “adventure trail” instead. The proposed “Salmonberry Corridor” is an 80 mile regional trail system; only 17 miles would affect the Salmonberry.

By: Charles Gehr, Rogue River Steward

5. Rogue River, OR

Species: Fall & Spring Chinook salmon, Winter & Summer Steelhead, Coho Salmon

  1. Improvement: Dam Removal on Evans Creek, 5 year restriction on suction dredge mining
  2. Ongoing challenges: Hatchery interactions, Development, Coho & Spring Chinook Recovery
  3. Action Item: Pass legislation to permanently reform suction dredge mining practices in Oregon

The Rogue River has enjoyed a trend the last handful of years toward conservation-minded improvements and 2015 was no different. Thanks to the efforts of the local community and multiple conservation groups we saw the removal of two more dams this year - this time on Evans Creek. Removing these long-defunct fish barriers has now opened an additional 19 miles of habitat for Fall Chinook production, 60 miles for Coho salmon production and 70 miles for wild steelhead production. This effort, along with the 5-year restriction on suction dredge mining in 80% of Oregon's waterways (100% of Oregon's waterways with essential salmon habitat), marks a significant step in the right direction towards recovering the Rogue's wild salmon and steelhead.

By: Adam Bronstein, Metolius River Steward

6. Metolius River, OR

Species: Redband Rainbow Trout

  1. Improvement: Seasonal closures to protect spawning trout.
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Legal harvest of bull trout in Lake Billy Chinook, and illegal poaching of bull trout instream.
  3. Action Item: Coalition building to protect spring creek and headwater protections throughout the central Cascades.

When taking in the beauty of the Metolius, we can’t forget that it once supported large runs of anadromous fish. Meaning "stinking river" in native tongue, the river was named for the rotting salmon that would accumulate here. Past work to reestablish the Metolius as a wild fishery in the 90s began a healing process that continues into today. Ensuring the wild fishery on the Metolius stays protected has both short and long term implications, and our work this year ensured fishing regulations protect redband rainbow trout when they are their most vulnerable - while spawning.

By: Tom Derry & Mark Schmidt, Molalla River Stewards

7. Molalla River, OR

Species: Winter Steelhead, Rainbow & Cutthroat Trout & Spring Chinook Salmon

  1. Improvements: State Scenic Waterway Designation, Habitat restoration, removal of fish passage barriers, no hatchery trout or steelhead plants, catch and release on all trout and steelhead.
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Agricultural and forest habitat degradation, negative interactions with hatchery Spring Chinook, lack of screening on irrigation intakes.
  3. Action Item: Partner with ODFW to ensure irrigation intakes are screened.

NFS Stewards have been active in supporting the Molalla River's designation as an Oregon State Scenic Waterway. The upper section of the Molalla River will be preserved for future generations to enjoy. Protecting 100 percent of the instream water in the designated area is critical to recovering all wild fish species in the Molalla. Tom and Mark are presently focusing on interactions with ODFW district biologists, aimed at altering the hatchery Spring Chinook program to include a recovery component, and ongoing habitat restoration projects.

By: Ed Megill & Ken Johnson, Skagit River Stewards

8. Skagit River, WA

Species: Winter & Summer Steelhead, Sockeye, Pink, Chinook, Coho, Chum Salmon, Rainbow, Bull and Cutthroat Trout

  1. Improvement: 12-Year moratorium on hatchery steelhead releases
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Harvest of Rainbow and Bull Trout, Habitat Degradation
  3. Action Item: Recommended Potential Wild Steelhead Gene Bank for 2016.

Last years Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit victory removed Chambers Creek winter steelhead plants on the Skagit for a 12- year moratorium. Significant investments in habitat restoration throughout the tidal marsh, estuary and floodplains have improved rearing habitat for Chinook and steelhead, and combined with a record number of pink salmon returns that provide an excellent nutrient load for juvenile salmonids - the Skagit on a clear upward trajectory for wild fish. Now, the Skagit has been recommended to become one of Washington’s next Wild Steelhead Gene Banks., which if designated would permanently protect wild steelhead from hatchery plants.

By: Scott Turo, Fish Habitat Program Manager, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

9. Mill Creek, Deschutes Basin, OR

Species: Redband Rainbow Trout, Spring Chinook & Summer Steelhead

  1. Improvement: Habitat and floodplain restoration
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Legacy land use impacts
  3. Action Item: Habitat restoration expansion with large wood placement in Warm Springs

Log storage ponds, commonly known on the Warm Springs Reservation as Potter’s Ponds, were constructed in Mill Creek in the late 1940’s. The floodplain was manipulated in order to create lateral berms (dams) that extended across the extent of the floodplain blocking upstream fish passage. The berms were breached in 1980 as a result of high stream flows, and the habitat failed to recover due to an incised channel and disconnected floodplain. The primary objectives of the Mill Creek restoration project were to remove the lateral berms, grade the floodplain, increase salmonid spawning and rearing habitat, and revegetate the floodplain with native plants.

By: Dylan Tomine, Author

10. Elwha River, WA

Species: Summer & Fall Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Chum, & Pink Salmon, Winter Steelhead, Cutthroat & Bull Trout

  1. Improvement: Largest dam removal in North America, halting of Chambers Creek winter steelhead releases
  2. Ongoing Challenges: Continued operation of hatchery and release of hatchery coho salmon
  3. Action Item: Potential Wild Steelhead Gene Bank designation in 2016

Through two winters now, the newly free Elwha River has pushed sediment downstream, creating an expansive delta and estuary system where once only a sterile channel met the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Acres of sandbars, tidal ponds and sloughs provide ideal salmon-rearing habitat, and tangible proof of a river’s power to recover. But when the historic removal of Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams was completed in August, 2014, the cloud of genetic pollution from hatchery steelhead still hung over the Elwha. Today, with the Wild Fish Conservancy’s legal victory keeping Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead out, and the potential for Wild Steelhead Gene Bank designation, the future of the Elwha looks brighter than it has in more than 100 years.


11. Honorable Mentions

Chetco River, OR

  • Species: Fall Chinook, Coho, Winter Steelhead & Cutthroat Trout
  • Improvement: Oregon State Scenic Waterway Designation
  • Ongoing Challenges: Wild steelhead harvest, steelhead & Chinook hatchery programs, Coho Recovery, Temporary Mining Restrictions
  • Action Items: Secure temporary and permanent mineral withdrawals for the Chetco, Illinois, Pistol and Smith Rivers and Hunter Creek to prevent future mineral development, and end wild steelhead harvest.

Puyallup River, WA

  • Species: Winter Steelhead
  • Improvement: Habitat restoration reconnecting floodplains
  • Ongoing Challenges: Hatchery interactions
  • Action Item: Recommended as Wild Steelhead Gene Bank 2016

Grays and Chinook Rivers, WA

  • Species: Winter Steelhead
  • Improvement: Habitat restoration in wetlands and tidal marshes
  • Ongoing Challenges: Habitat degradation and hatchery interactions
  • Action Item: Recommended as Wild Steelhead Gene Bank in 2016 (Selected as Wild Steelhead Gene Bank in 2016)

Join the Movement.

Help us protect our precious watersheds with your support.

Become a Member