Worst Returns on Record for Puget Sound Winter Steelhead?

Discussion in 'Steelhead' started by Courtesy Flush, Aug 31, 2009.

  1. I have been fishing on the westside for steelhead since 1975. What has happened to steelhead populations is terribly sad. And we thought it was poor in '75, we used to think about what it was in '25 or '45. That would have ruled.

    What has gone on to the steelhead that return to Puget sound is a travesty. From hatcheries which are a major problem, to habitat loss, decreases of food populations in both fresh and salt waters, and storms that ravage the stream bed more and more frequently are all pieces of the puzzle.

    Government is being slow to react and projects are far below what is really needed. Consequently they will be gone in Washington soon. They will probably last in Oregon until the next millenium, as that is a state that protected them, not sold them wholesale to the highest bidder.

    That's why I am way more interested in trout fishing than in steelhead anymore.
  2. That's very depressing.
    What "ocean condition(s)" does he feel is/are the primary pressures?

    Given my physical problems, I can no longer chase steelhead. But I still hurt to see their demise.
  3. That's about when I started fishing steel, too. Probably landed my first in '81. I feel very fortunate to have fished the seasons I've had, and I'm not ready to switch over to 100% trout. But things are getting tough. Fishing the Penninsula waters last year I had the worst trip up there I can remember. Hooked one.

    I wouldn't hold my breath for Oregon either. There are still some fish around, but between some places where you can still kill a wild and other rivers with this new broodstock program (which is just another way of saying hatchery), I believe ODFW is screwing up.

    At least with the old hatchery program they stocked fish that ran in Nov. and Dec. and segmented themselves, by run timing, from the wild fish. Now they've got the hatchery fish exactly overlapping the wilds. And, worse, they've moved the intensified fishing pressure from the meat fishery into the wild run season. Things are changing fast, and not for the better.

    Back in the 70's and 80's, the last thing I thought I'd grow up to be was an old fart sitting on the porch with cronies talking about the good ol' days. Now it seems likely.

    Or I guess there's always kayaking in order to enjoy river recreation. Dunno.

  4. I landed my first one in '67.
    I AM an old fart.
  5. i think this news is tragic. while i only fished the skagit a handful of times, and was never fortunate enough to hook one of her steelhead the idea of the skagit river with no wild steelhead is beyond tragic and should fill every fisherman, fly or gear, with a sense of sadness and hopefully anger to fight for proper management to hopefully bring back runs of fish to not only the skagit, but others throughout the state... even those deemed "healthy" but which are at a fraction of historical abundance.

    to me this should be a wake up call to fish managers, both state and tribal that the focus on harvesting hatchery fish early has destroyed the most plentiful wild steelhead stocks. historically for puget sound (when harvests were mostly wild) march and april had the lowest harvest rates of any winter month. hopefully the ocean productivity turns before these fish get to the point (if not already) of no recovery.

    a lot of habitat cannot be used by late-spawning steelhead, which is why we need to work on restoring early returning wild steelhead. i believe there is a way to bring back sustainable runs of wild steelhead, but the answers are hard and won't be liked by most sportfishermen and tribal fishermen... but we've gotta make the hard choices about hatcheries and harvest while continuing to work on improving habitat.

    the skagit with no wild steelhead... NOT ACCEPTABLE

  6. Those numbers are official. They came from the mouth of bios and the folks who did field studies and redd counts. They should be published pretty soon, if not already. The *only* thing I heard was they may up the count to 2500 fish total pending some additional dataa.
  7. It's NOT all bad news.

    Some folks in the know suggest that this is directly related to the Redding decision a few years back where springtime spills were required on CR tribs.... Based on the info I header this may account for the slightly higher percentage of wild versus hatchery fish that appear to be surviving (~29% for ytd versus 25% via spot calculations)....
  8. Bruce -
    Lugan pretty much hit the nail on its head - Most of those that are familar with the population trends of Puget Sound steelhead agree that the dominate factor shpae these recent poor returns are crappy marine survivals. Survivals that are just fraction of what was seen in the mid-1980s.

    I think it is very important to recognize that variable marine survival is natural and these variations have been occurring for eons. More importantly emerging information (over the last couple decades) pretty clearly show that those survival variations happen in cycles with extended periods of both good and poor average survivals. Those periods often last several decades (20 to 30 years). Most of us would not be surprised to learn that global warming maybe playing a role in the poor survival though to what degree is an unknown at this point.

    However the key point here is recognize that such variablility in survival is a normal situation and we and our managers must recognize that fact and include considerations of that variability in over all management schemes/paradigms. A key point to consider once one accepts that such variations are "normal" is that they must have happened in the past and when they do so how did the fish survive to continue the species. A couple thoughts immediately leap to my mind.

    One is that historically the habitat used by steelhead in our river basins were often much more productive - that is in those habitats a pair of spawning steelhead (especially at low abundances) produced a lot more smolts. This is important in two ways: 1) clearly it would take fewer spawners to re-seed the river and just as importantly that increased productivity would allow the population to bounce back much more quickly. A population rebound that historically may have taken a fish generation or two now may take much longer. And 2) we are now learning that while we anglers think of steelhead essentially as its own species the reality is that it is just one life form of O. mykiss. Further we are learning that there is a great deal of interaction between those various life forms - the anadrmous fish producing resident fish and more importantly the resident fish produce smolts. It is pretty easy to see situations where as marine survival came and when that the relative abundances of anadromous and resident fish would also shift over time. In effect the resident life history would become the population safety net for the "steelhead" we all are so passionate about.

    I continue to believe it is critically important that we come to grip with the above and accept the dominate role that marine survival can play in shaping our "steelhead" populations. Rather than becoming side-tracked in harvest and hatchery discussions (as important as they are in of themselves) we can focus on the larger issue. In this case it should be clear that our degraded habitats have compounded our steelhead's problems making them that much worst in these periods of poor survival. Clearly a reasonable plan of action would be to protect as much as the good existing habitat as possible while focusing restoration actions where it is likely to produce the biggest bang in terms of smolt production. We also need to allow a resident population to develop to provide that safety net for over species. On most waters current management actively selects against the resident life history through allowed harvest and the use of bait - we are in more need of a ban on killing juvenile and resident O. mykiss in our rivers than we in banning the kill of adult steelhead.

    Tight lines
  9. Push the dikes back a minimum of 100 yards on each side of the river. Regulate stricter flows coming from the dams. Stop the continued human beavering in the lower river all in the name of flood control. Stop the continued dumping of farm/yard/human pollutants into the river i.e. fertilizers, insecticides, human and animal waste. Stop the continued dewatering of the river and its tributaries thru wells and direct pumping. Stop all development along the banks of the lower river and upper river for that matter. Continue projects like the Wiley Slough restoration, but don’t sell out to special interests like Ducks Unlimited as they did with Wiley. Return all blocked off sloughs and historical water ways back to the river. Stop steep slope logging along any tributary of the system. Stop all fishing for steelhead. Eliminate all bait fishing.

    It will never happen.
  10. Kerry -
    I agree that it is an uphill battle but at least in the Skagit basin some head is being made. Will it be enough? Who knows but at least in some areas positive steps are being made (a start). River bottom land is being acquired with the goal of allow the river to do what rivers should do (and in some cases such as the end of the Bryson road on the Sauk rip-rap has even been removed), some wetlands are being re-connected, heck even bait has been banned on the Sauk and its forks, the Skagit above the Cascade, and most of the Cascade. Heck for those whose concern's are harvest and hatcheries the winter steelhead escapement goal has been set at 150% of the best estimate of MSY and hatchery plants have been reduced by 1/2 and eliminated in the Sauk.

    Will we as a society have the political will to keep that ball rolling? I don't know but for our grandkid's sake I hope so. I would dearly love to see that wonderful look of terror/enjoy in the face of one of my grandkids in some future spring as a Sauk steelhead attempts to tear them a new one!

    Tight lines
  11. Topwater -
    Statements such as

    "...the focus on harvesting hatchery fish early has destroyed the most plentiful wild steelhead stocks. historically for puget sound (when harvests were mostly wild) march and april had the lowest harvest rates of any winter month."

    Probably should be put in some sort of context. Historically (prior to significant hatchery returns) the general stream season on most Puget Sound rivers was a July 1 to October 31 summer season and a December 1 to end of February winter season. Yes there were exceptions but with most water closed in March through June it is not surprising that the spring catch was lower than the other months.

    I was fortuante enough to learn the steelhead game from several old timers. These gentlemen (I use the term loosely) and their buddies cut their teeth fishing steelhead during 1930s and 40s on the Snohomish system. I talked at length with them about the good old days. They reported a couple of things of interest - one that fishing in the 1960s (thanks largely to the hatchery fish) was better than the "old days" but more importantly for this discussion they generally agreed that while it was possible to catch a steelhead or two in December in the "old days" it was not worth their time and $$ (gas money) to go after steelhead until January (remember they were fishing for the table).

    I was also fortuante enough to be on the Nooksack river at the start of the steelhead hatchery program in the basin. The first hatchery fish there returned in the winter of 1973/74 and they all were fin clipped. It was straight forward to ID the wild fish. What I consistently saw was increasing numbers of wild fish every month with the largest numbers of fresh wild fish seen in late March (the river closed to sport fishing the end of March). While it would be tempting to say that the tribal fishery may have altered the run timing the truth of the matter is that fished pretty much full time (5 days/week) from the salmon runs straight through to mid-April.

    Finally due to the influence of the snow melt (run-off lasting until mid-summer) on the north Puget Sound rivers it is the late spawning steelhead that are selected for by the river environment rather than the early spawners. I beleive that accounts for the late spawning typcially seen on the Skagit (spawning from early March through June with a peak in May). Readers might find it interesting to learn that on the Methow (whose hydro-graph is similar to the Skagit) the historical information that I could find indicated that those wild summer steelhead spawned from early March through May) Again there are considerable regional differences and I think one would find a different situation on say the coast; certainly there is good information there that there were significant numbers of earlier returning wild steelhead.

    Tight lines
  12. Runejl ~ I don't know their route but if it's anywhere near the Fraser system, this wild fish advoacte may agree with you... Maybe you've heard of him.

    This may have been posted on the board somewhere before

    Hello All:

    In the last two weeks nearly 2,000 more people have signed our letter asking the Minister of Fisheries to apply the laws of Canada to salmon farms.

    The Fraser sockeye are returning at 1/10 of their predicted number. While government continues to guess at the reason, they refuse to respond to the one factor shown to have exactly this effect worldwide and is easily fixed.

    Please read this and stay tuned for how we can bring reason to this situation.

    Thank you all for taking a stand and putting your name to this. The only way government will be allowed to see this situation for what it is, is if there are too many of us to ignore.

    We can do this,

    Alexandra Morton

    Fraser River's salmon stocks 'beyond a crisis'
    August 13, 2009


    The mysterious collapse of the B.C. sockeye run has dashed hopes raised just weeks ago of a good return this year

    The Fraser River is experiencing one of the biggest salmon disasters in recent history with more than nine million sockeye vanishing.

    Aboriginal fish racks are empty, commercial boats worth millions of dollars are tied to the docks and sport anglers are being told to release any sockeye they catch while fishing for still healthy runs of chinook.

    Between 10.6 million and 13 million sockeye were expected to return to the Fraser this summer. But the official count is now just 1.7 million, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

    Where the nine to 11 million missing fish went remains a mystery. "It's beyond a crisis with these latest numbers," said Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo tribes on the Fraser. "What it means is that a lot of impoverished natives are going to be without salmon. ... We have families with little or no income that were depending on these fish. ... It's a catastrophe," he said.

    Mr. Crey said a Canada-U.S. salmon summit should be called to find solutions.

    The sockeye collapse is startling because until just a few weeks ago it seemed the Fraser was headed for a good return.

    In 2005, nearly nine million sockeye spawned in the Fraser system, producing a record number of young, known as smolts, which in 2007, began to migrate out of the lakes where they'd reared for two years. Biologists for the DFO were buoyed by the numbers - the Chilko and Quesnel tributaries alone produced 130 million smolts - and because the young fish were bigger than any on record.

    Those fish were expected to return to the Fraser this summer in large numbers, and those projections held until a few weeks ago when test fishing results began to signal a problem.

    Barry Rosenberger, DFO area director for the Interior, said test nets at sea got consistently low catches, then samples in the river confirmed the worst - the sockeye just weren't there in any numbers.

    There had been some hope the fish - which return in five distinct groups, or runs - might be delayed at sea, but Mr. Rosenberger dismissed that possibility.

    "There are people hanging on to hope ... but the reality is ... all indications are that none of these runs are late," he said.

    Mr. Rosenberger said officials don't know where or why the salmon vanished - but they apparently died at some point during migration.

    Brian Riddell, president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, said: "We've been pondering this and I think a lot of people are focusing on the immediate period of entry into the Strait of Georgia and asking what on earth could have happened to them. What we're seeing now is very, very unexpected."

    Some are pointing fingers at salmon farms as a possible suspect because of research that showed smolts became infested with sea lice as they swam north from the Fraser, through the Strait of Georgia.

    "This has got to be one of the worst returns we've ever seen on the Fraser. ... It's shocking really," said ecologist Craig Orr, of Watershed Watch.

    Dr. Riddell said sea lice infestations are a possible factor, but it is "extremely unlikely" that could account for the entire collapse.

    "We have had the farms there for many years and we have not seen it related to the rates of survival on Fraser sockeye [before]," he said.

    Dr. Riddell said a sockeye smolt with sea lice, however, might grow weak and become easy prey or succumb to environmental conditions it might otherwise survive.

    Alexandra Morton, who several years ago correctly predicted a collapse of pink salmon runs in the Broughton Archipelago because of sea lice infestations, in March warned the same thing could happen to Fraser sockeye.

    She said researchers used genetic analyses to show Fraser sockeye smolts were getting infested with sea lice in the Strait of Georgia.

    "I looked at about 350 of this generation of Fraser sockeye when they went to sea in 2007 and they had up to 28 sea lice [each]. The sea lice were all young lice, which means they got them in the vicinity of where we were sampling, which was near the fish farms in the Discovery Islands. If they got sea lice from the farms, they were also exposed to whatever other pathogens were happening on the fish farms (viruses and bacteria)," Ms. Morton said in an e-mail.

    "There's a lot of different beliefs as to why the fish haven't shown up, but I think it's pretty clear where there are no fish farms salmon are doing well," said Brian McKinley, a guide and owner of Silversides Fishing Adventure.

    "It's pretty frustrating to watch what is happening," he said from his boat, anchored on the river near Mission. "I remember sockeye would just boil through here in August and September. It was insane ... now the river seems dead."

    Dan Gerak, who runs Pitt River Lodge, said there is an environmental crisis on the river.

    "Definitely something's got to be done - or it's finished forever," he said of the Fraser's famed salmon run.

    Other big runs of salmon are expected to return this year - notably pinks where are projected to number 17 million - but it is too early to tell if the sockeye collapse will be repeated with other species.
  13. Curt,

    Sorry for the rant. Optimism is tough to keep when you see what has been done to the Skagit on a daily basis and is continuing to happen today. People that live along the river, especially the towns on the lower river, don't want to hear about saving fish. They are more concerned about saving the house or business that they foolishly built in the flood plain. Farmers only care about their crops and loggers only care about cutting down the trees. Duck hunters want ducks and fishermen want fish.

    I will still do what little I can through some of the local orgs. Thanks for your optimism.
  14. Curt,

    I also see the closure this summer of lower Finney Creek as another good move for the wild fish since it is used by both summer and winter steelhead. So in the Skagit basin, we now have lower Finney Creek completely as sanctuary water since it is closed to all fishing and doesn't get hatchery plants, along with the Sauk (and its tributaries) getting no hatchery plants making it wild fish santuary water too. Then we add the Skagit (and its tributaries) above the Cascade and the Cascade above the hatchery as wild fish sanctuary water with C&R and selective gear rules also helping out the wild fish. Add to this the estuary restoration work getting done on the Skagit Delta and I'm somewhat encouraged.

    But you are correct, there is poor marine survival going on right now and it is having a large impact on the steelhead in Puget Sound, and coastal BC and SE Alaska as well. I'd love to see a 20" or even better, a 24" minimum size limit imposed on rainbow in all our rivers that have steelhead in them.
  15. curt,

    thanks for the response. you mention that it wasn't worth fishing until january when it was wild fish only. well, those january fish are basically gone in most rivers managed for hatchery production. we can argue over whether they were the largest part of the run or not, but we cannot argue they didn't exist or that they filled habitat that often later spawning fish cannot utilize. you mention the importance of resident rainbows (which i agree with) for diversity, but seem to discount that the early winter wild fish might have played just as important of a role.

    i do appreciate the historical info on when seasons were closed, but seeing large harvests in january and february in puget sound makes me believe that even if it wasn't the largest part of the run (like the coast) the earlier timed fish were a substantial part of the population that is gone.

    of course, it is certainly easier to restrict harvest on resident rainbows and work to bring more of them back to our rivers than restoring the early part of the wild runs. changing regulations on trout is much easier than messing with the entrenched steelhead management that specifically worked to push run timing later and focuses intense harvest on early-timed fish with hatchery programs.

    i also had some questions about the general winter steelhead season prior to large hatchery plants. i'm having a hard time finding information about what the seasons actually were in the 30's and 40's and seem to be only able to find references to what people have said, for example in the trey combs book he states in 1947 the winter season lasted until april 15. other links i've found (not what i would consider reliable) mention fishing in march and april.

    if you have any links, it would be much appreciated.


Share This Page