A wild steelhead on the Deschutes River, Oregon. Photo credit: Justin Bailie

Columbia Steelhead Crisis: What Needs to Happen

Click here to add your name to the letter below and join the groundswell of public support speaking up for Columbia Basin steelhead!

Dear Governors Brown & Inslee and ODFW & WDFW Commission Members,

To put it bluntly, Columbia Basin wild steelhead are in crisis. Steelhead counts at Bonneville are unlike anything we have seen in nearly a century and are on the path to being the worst run ever recorded since counting began in 1938. The few fish that have returned are facing the second hottest water temperature trends in the past decade.

We implore the states of Oregon and Washington to take aggressive action immediately to ensure that as many wild fish as possible make it to their homewaters and successfully spawn. To be frank, we are quite possibly looking at the end game for wild steelhead in what was once one of the world’s greatest wild anadromous fish-producing ecosystems. It’s now or never if we are going to act to prevent the extinction of these Pacific Northwest icons.

Today, we ask that the states take the following actions to reverse the slide toward extinction of these magnificent fish:

1) Through 2021, close non-tribal commercial drift gill nets in the lower Columbia River and close or seriously curtail recreational fisheries (including catch and release) in the Columbia River mainstem and tributaries that target wild steelhead.

As of August 16, the cumulative hatchery and wild steelhead return for the entire Columbia Basin was a mere 22% of the current 10-year average, which itself is the lowest 10-year average on record. Wild steelhead returns are on track to be the lowest since counting began to differentiate between hatchery and wild fish in 1994. It is quite likely that far fewer than 20,000 wild steelhead will make it past the first Columbia mainstem dam (Bonneville) this year. The fish that do will still have hundreds of miles, lethally hot water temperatures, and numerous dams to navigate on their return to their spawning grounds. Every fish needs to be given the best chance possible to successfully reproduce. The states should close all non-tribal fisheries that target steelhead and commercial gill net fisheries that potentially intercept these fish. This should include catch and release angling which causes stress to fish and can result in unintended mortalities, especially when fish are already facing hot water temperatures.

The state of Oregon has recognized that fisheries closures are an important management tool during low run years. In August, the Umpqua River, where similarly low steelhead returns and high water temperatures are being observed, was closed to angling by ODFW for the remainder of the year. Similar conservation actions are warranted for Columbia basin populations as well.

2) Issue a disaster declaration.

Commercial and recreational fisheries are being significantly affected by the poor returns. Management actions to protect the run will further impact these important economies. We ask that the Governors of Oregon and Washington declare a disaster so that commercial anglers and recreational fishing guides can access federal and/or state funding to see them through this emergency while the state Departments of Fish and Wildlife implement conservation-oriented management actions that can protect what remains of this year’s wild steelhead populations.

3) Establish and protect cold water refugia in Washington.

Unlike Oregon, the state of Washington has failed to designate thermal sanctuaries and closure policies for these important cold water refugia. Summer water temperatures in the mainstem Columbia River often reach lethal levels during the migration period for Summer Steelhead. When water temperatures rise above 64F, survival begins to decrease. At 70F, there’s a 10% reduction in survival compared to when the temps are 64F and below. The Columbia River at Bonneville Dam usually surpasses the 64F threshold by early July, can remain above 70F for a month or more, and often reaches highs of 73-74F. This summer, mainstem temperatures are on their way to being some of the most sustained high temperatures ever recorded.

By contrast, many of the major tributaries entering the Columbia in the critical migration corridor below the John Day Dam have water temperatures that can run substantially colder than the mainstem, up to 10F or more in some rivers. 60-80% of fish migrating up the Columbia use these cooler pools of water as refuges when mainstem temperatures top 68F. They are a critical piece to increasing survivability of upper-basin bound fish.

At the same time, thermal refugia can expose fish to increased angling. Even catch and release encounters can greatly reduce the survival and reproduction of fish. Areas where fish congregate are naturally attractive to the angling public and can turn what should be refuge into another stressor on fish already being pushed to their physical limits.

Oregon recently established thermal angling sanctuaries at a number of key cold water refugia. We thank the ODFW Commission for taking this important conservation step. It’s time for Washington to do the same. We urge the WDFW Commission to adopt and enforce thermal angling sanctuaries on EPA designated cold water refugia rivers including the Cowlitz, Lewis, Kalama, Wind, Little White Salmon, White Salmon, and Klickitat Rivers.

4) Extend Thermal Angling Sanctuary protections in Oregon until October 31 and extend the Deschutes sanctuary to cover 100% of the cold water plume.

At present, angling closures at these important thermal sanctuaries are set to expire on September 16. Yet a substantial portion of Snake River Steelhead use cold water refuges like the Deschutes through September and into October. Oregon should extend these sanctuaries through at least October 31 to provide steelhead safe harbor on their journey. Further, the Deschutes River thermal angling sanctuary should be extended to cover 100% of the cold water refugium plume (at present, the sanctuary only covers 75% of the plume). This cold water refugium is particularly critical as it is the last recognized sanctuary for fish until they make their final run for their homewaters.

5) Establish and implement high temperature and low flow angling closure policies.

As we continue to experience the effects of year-after-year warm water temperatures and low snowpack, we urge the departments to develop river-specific, temperature- and flow-based angling regulations that protect sensitive stocks, rather than having department staff respond each year, mid-season, and often after the temperature thresholds have been exceeded.

The scientific literature on the effects of warm water temperature on salmonids is extensive and shows that temperature affects every stage of their life histories. It is now common for many Oregon and Washington rivers to experience temperatures that exceed the thresholds suitable for ethical catch and release angling or in mixed-stock fisheries that have sensitive or threatened populations caught as bycatch. It is important for the departments to develop and implement science-based policy to respond to these emerging, but annually recurring, threats. It behooves the agency to craft such regulations in advance of the hot summer season, rather than through piecemeal emergency responses.

Today, we ask that ODFW and WDFW take the actions necessary to establish statewide angling regulation policy that sets standards for fishing closures when temperature thresholds are exceeded. We implore the department to craft this regulation before summer of 2022 in order to best protect and conserve all of our native fish in the coming year and beyond.

It is also critical that the department establish publicly accessible temperature monitoring systems on all major tributaries and cold water refugia of the Columbia in order to effectively implement this policy and provide transparency to the public when triggers are reached. In Washington, the Cowlitz, Lewis, Wind, Little White Salmon, White Salmon, and Klickatat Rivers (all EPA designated cold water refuges) lack temperature monitoring, and in Oregon, the Sandy and Hood Rivers and Tanner, Herman and Eagle Creeks (all EPA designated cold water refuges) lack temperature monitoring.

6) Establish a suite of in-season adaptive management triggers and actions.

When run sizes are below a set critical abundance target, regulatory actions must be taken. Both the critical thresholds and the management actions to be taken need to be specified in advance of the run season and regularly evaluated during the return. The strength of any regulatory actions should be based on the return size, with the lowest return years requiring the most drastic actions.

7) Support and advocate for the removal of the four Snake River dams.

We know that removing these dams is necessary to revive abundant, wild fish in the Snake River system. We ask that the states and Oregon and Washington formally declare their support for dam removal, call on President Biden to withdraw support for the Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion, and advocate for federal legislation that gets the dams out soon while providing a net uplift for all of the Columbia’s fish populations, upstream and downstream.

The state of our rivers and fish populations can no longer be sustained with the business as usual approach. Yes; the change that is needed immediately and in the coming years will have real world impacts on individuals, on businesses, on communities, and on economies. But those will also be the impacts that come about if we no longer have salmon and steelhead returning to our rivers. We stand ready to advocate strongly for state and federal compensation for those communities and industries that are impacted. We stand ready to support the states in taking immediate and aggressive action to prevent the serious depletion or extinction of Columbia Basin wild steelhead.

Wild, native fish are a keystone species; they’re uniquely entwined in a natural relationship with people and wildlife. Their wellbeing and success affect us all.

What will we lose when these fish are gone? What are we losing right now as they disappear on our watch? What will the state do? What will the department do? What will you do, right now, to ensure that Columbia basin steelhead have a future?

The time is now to act. Otherwise, it will be on our watch that these magnificent creatures disappear from our landscapes.

Thank you.

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