Steelhead Belong in Rivers, and a
by Roger Phillips
After the awesome 2009-10 steelhead run ended, I was ready to tuck away my fly rods and bask in the afterglow. My buddies and I had caught a bunch of steelhead, and we're already looking forward to fishing for them again in the fall.
I admit I wasn't feeling the usual political agitation I get when my favorite fish are getting short shrift. It's easy to sit back and think life is good. But there are important decisions made year-round that affect future salmon and steelhead runs and anglers who love to chase them.
An example happened this spring when a low snowpack forced biologists and bureaucrats to decide whether to spill water over the dams to help young salmon and steelhead migrate to the ocean or load them into barges and ship them downstream.
They came to the right decision to spill some fish over the dams, and a study done by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows why. It found that steelhead that remain in the rivers during downstream migration are more likely to return to their river of origin rather than stray into another river.
We've long known some Idaho steelhead make detours on their upstream migration, and many of them get caught by anglers in Oregon or remain in the wrong river to spawn.
Research shows that Snake River hatchery steelhead are not only straying, but those barged past dams have a higher rate of straying than those that remain in the river and naturally migrate to the ocean.
Oregon's John Day River system has no salmon or steelhead hatcheries in it, yet "out-of-basin strays appear to be a significant component of the steelhead spawning population in the John Day River basin," according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife study. "Further, PIT tag detection indicates significantly more transported steelhead from the Snake River stray into the John Day River compared to fish that emigrated to the ocean without the aide of barge transport."
The report went on to say that stray steelhead may be reducing the productivity of wild steelhead populations in the John Day River, which is showing a long-term decline.
Previous studies have shown that a spawning population composed of 50 percent hatchery fish is only 63 percent as productive as one composed of only wild fish.
Managing Idaho's salmon and steelhead is always a bit of a conundrum.
In the last century, the Snake and Columbia Rivers and their tributaries have gone from among the best salmon/steelhead rivers in the world to a patchwork of fish-killing contraptions. The losses were mitigated by a bunch of techno fixes and Band-Aid approaches that barely maintained viable wild fish populations, while hatchery production propped up the fishery.
I've long walked the tightrope between advocating for improving rivers and restoring wild runs while phasing out hatcheries, or accepting that dams and hatcheries probably are here to stay. A small self-sustaining wild fish run and harvesting hatchery fish is better than letting Idaho's wild populations decline until they will never provide a fishing season.
My first choice would be returning rivers to a natural state and reducing hatchery production as wild fish numbers increase, but I'm not seeing that happen.
I'm also not into putting fish and wildlife under glass with a "look, but don't touch" policy. I don't think all species have to be caught or shot, but history shows that fish and wildlife that are harvested are more valuable culturally and economically than those not harvested. So what does that have to do with deciding to spill water over dams?
There's another side to that coin. A hatchery fish that strays into Oregon rivers is opportunity lost for Idaho anglers. So it's in everyone's best interest to ensure steelhead return to their streams of origin so they can fulfill their proper roles - whether wild spawners or hatchery fish intended for anglers.
It's easy to get complacent because salmon and steelhead biology and politics are so complicated, but it's important to keep in mind that decisions like whether to barge or spill can not only affect a wild fish population in Oregon, it can mean fewer fish for anglers hundreds of miles away in Stanley.
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