The forecasted return of B-run steelhead to Idaho has gone from bad to horrendous, and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission will consider closing the Clearwater River and part of the Snake River to all steelhead fishing.
State, tribal and regional fisheries managers now predict only about 1,700 hatchery, B-run steelhead will return at least as far as Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. Dworshak National Fish Hatchery near Orofino needs about 2,000 adult steelhead to hit its production goals, known as brood, leaving none for anglers.
The commission will meet by telephone Friday to vote on a proposal from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to close all steelhead fishing, including catch-and-release fishing, on the Clearwater River and its Middle, North and South forks and on the Snake River from the Idaho-Washington state line at Lewiston upstream to the Couse Creek Boat ramp south of Asotin.
The closures, which would take effect Sept. 29, would help ensure more fish reach hatcheries on the Clearwater River. Fisheries officials in Washington are poised to follow suit and close steelhead fishing on a section of the Snake River.
On Tuesday, the regional fisheries managers known collectively as the Technical Advisory Committee, further reduced their prediction for the number of steelhead that will pass Bonneville Dam to 69,200, including just 2,500 B-run fish. Before the season began, they predicted a return of 118,200 total steelhead, including about 8,000 B-run fish.
Lance Hebdon, anadromous fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise, said this year’s B-run looks like it will be one of the smallest on record.
“It will end up being one of the top five worst returns over Bonneville Dam since we have been counting them,” he said.
This year marks the third year in a row of poor steelhead returns. Spring and summer chinook runs have been dismal as well. Fall chinook numbers appear to be on pace to meet preseason forecasts and coho returning to the Snake and Columbia rivers are also on pace to meet expectations. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission will also vote Friday on a proposal to open a coho season on the Clearwater.
All of the anadromous fish runs returning to the Columbia River and its tributaries have been hit hard by poor ocean conditions over the past handful of years. Fisheries managers suspect that hatchery B-run steelhead might also be suffering from high levels of dissolved gas they were exposed to as juveniles in 2017. David Johnson, manager of the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management, said juvenile steelhead at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery were exposed to high levels of gas two years ago because of work on a turbine at Dworshak Dam. The turbine was off-line during the work and Army Corps of Engineers officials had to spill more water than normal at the dam to make room for spring runoff.
The spill caused dissolved gas levels to rise to dangerous levels. Dworshak National Fish Hatchery draws most of its water from the North Fork of the Clearwater River below the dam.
“We tried to control it as best we coud and move some fish around, but the fish were sill exposed to high gas for an extended period of time,” he said.
The juvenile fish were released from the hatchery early, after they started to show signs of ill effects from gas exposure. Johnson said that may have led to increased mortality, as did poor forage conditions once they reached the ocean. Juvenile steelhead raised at the hatchery in 2018 were also exposed to elevated gas levels, leading to the prospect of poor returns next year.
Johnson said the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider closing steelhead harvest on the Clearwater River. On Tuesday, the tribe recommended that fellow tribes that use gillnets to fish for fall chinook in the Columbia River not open a season there because of poor steelhead returns. B-run steelhead are often caught in gillnets. The gillnet season in Zone Six of the Columbia River, roughly between Bonneville Dam and McNary Dam, was approved despite the tribe’s recommendation against it.
If the Idaho Fish and Game Commission closes steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River and its tributaries and on part of the Snake River, it will idle many guides and lead anglers to move to other rivers, such as the Snake above Couse Creek, the Salmon River and the Grande Ronde River.
Jeff Jarrett, owner of Jarrett’s Guide Service at Orofino, said he was not surpirsed the state is thinking about closing the season and that it’s the right move given the poor returns.
“As of today I have 59 drift boat (trips) booked between Oct. 1 and Thanksgiving, I’ll lose all of those,” he said. “It is what it is; let’s give the fish a break.”
He will continue to run fall chinook trips on the Clearwater and some trips to Dworshak Reservoir. Jarrett said he also works as a carpenter on the side and has construction work lined up.
Toby Wyatt, owner of Reel Time Fishing and chairman of the Clearwater Chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance, said he’d like the state to allow catch-and-release steelhead fishing but understands if even that has to close.
“I don’t want to kill every last fish out there,” he said. “I trust what Fish and Game does. They have done a good job managing the runs. If they deem that they need to close it to make brood, then we support that decision.”
Wyatt said he and many other guides will move their fishing trips to the open sections of Snake River and other rivers.
David Moskowitz of the Conservation Angler based in Portland said given the poor returns and bad ocean conditions, his organization is thinking about recommending that all steelhead fishing be closed on the Columbia River and its tributaries. He said wild fish, protected by the Endangered Species Act, are dominating this year’s steelhead run, but their numbers are also depressed.
“A lot of people think the fishery should just be closed for a period of time,” he said. “You could get (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to declare a disaster, get some federal funds to sort of help buffer the economic impact to the industry and figure out a way for the tribes to get enough fish to continue their way of life. Why not just sit on the beach for a couple of years? It just doesn’t seem like the news is going to be in our favor.”
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