Steelhead are returning to Idaho in record-low numbers and prompting fisheries managers to curtail this fall’s fishing season.
According to an Aug. 15 press release from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game about 400 steelhead had crossed Lower Granite Dam and entered Idaho by Monday, Aug. 14. The 10-year average for the date is about 6,000 steelhead.
“It’s unconscionable that industry and government agencies claim steelhead are doing fine, or even recovering,” said IRU Executive Director Kevin Lewis. “The actual numbers speak to a very different reality. These fish, listed as threatened in 1997, are teetering on the brink of extinction.”
Since 1987, all wild fish have been required to be returned to the river. This year, due to the abysmal return, hatchery fish must also be put back.
Barb Lane, who co-owns Riggins-based Wapiti River Guides, said most of their steelhead fishing clients like to keep the fish they catch. Even if anglers want to fish catch-and-release, this year’s poor return could scare clients away.
“Steelhead is basically what gets us through the winter,” Lane said. “Most people fish because they like to eat them. If we have no trips, then we have no income.”
Fisheries managers said it was “very unlikely” that steelhead harvest would be reopened this fall.
The poor steelhead count is the latest chapter in a season of poor anadromous fish returns. Sockeye are still making their way back to Idaho, but as of Monday only 226 had passed Lower Granite Dam. That’s 21 percent of the 10-year average and a drop in the bucket toward meeting long-term recovery targets. Of those, 50 had returned to the Sawtooth Valley, eight of them wild.
Also by Monday only 36,269 hatchery and wild chinook salmon had crossed Lower Granite Dam. That’s 45 percent of the 10-year average of 79,529 fish.
“It’s important to point out that all of these numbers, and especially the 10-year averages, aren’t even close to what scientists would consider recovery,” Lewis said. “For steelhead, chinook and sockeye we’ve seen consecutive years of declines that call into serious question the sustainability of the runs with the lower Snake River dams still in place.”
In May 2016 a federal judge ordered federal agencies that manage the Snake and Columbia rivers to reexamine measures they’re taking to protect endangered steelhead and salmon and to give lower Snake River dam removal consideration.
“While the judge gave the agencies five years to complete an environmental study of the system, nature is showing that we may not have that long,” Lewis said. “The emergency is now, and it’s dire."