Worst Returns on Record for Puget Sound Winter Steelhead?

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

  1. Smalma

    Smalma Active Member

    Dec 12, 2004
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    Marysville, Washington
    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
  2. Marty Leith

    Marty Leith Member

    Sep 13, 2004
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    Bellevue, WA
    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.
  3. KerryS

    KerryS Ignored Member

    Oct 19, 2001
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    Sedro Woolley, WA, USA.

    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.
  4. FT

    FT Active Member

    Mar 29, 2005
    Likes Received:
    Burlington, WA

    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.
  5. Chris Bellows

    Chris Bellows Your Preferred WFF Poster

    Feb 3, 2003
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    The Salt

    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.


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