WDFW fields complaints, concerns about declining steelhead fishery

WDFW Northcentral Regional Director Jim Brown introduced speakers and fielded questions from the audience.

WDFW Region 2 Director Chad Jackson delivered a presentation on the summer steelhead fishery.


PATEROS – About two dozen residents and sportsmen gathered at Howard’s on the River Central Building in Pateros last Tuesday, Sept. 19, to participate in a discussion of local wildlife issues – particularly steelhead - with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) representatives

WDFW Northcentral Regional Director Jim Brown opened the meeting followed by a 15-minute presentation by WDFW biologist Scott Fitkin concerning current deer and game bird populations and habitat conditions.

In response to a question about deer survival, Fitkin said that while fawn mortality over the last two winters was above average but not severe and that none of the radio-collared spring deer died over the past winter.

The balance of the two hour-plus meeting was devoted to the local steelhead fishery and its closure in the upper Columbia River system for the past two years.

Chad Jackson, WDFW’s Region 2 fish program manager clarified the summer steelhead area under discussion as the upper Columbia region from Priest Rapids Dam upstream to Chief Joseph Dam, including the main stem Columbia, the Wenatchee, Entiat, Methow and Okanogan rivers and their tributaries.

“It just isn’t the Methow we’re talking about,” said Jackson and recited the developments that affect the local steelhead fishery.

“The upper Columbia summer steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) back in 1999,” said Jackson, “and a key component of the listing is that both the wild and the hatchery steelhead are listed, they’re not separate.”

Jackson added that the upper Columbia hatchery programs play a role in aiding steelhead recovery efforts.

Jackson explained the ESA permit that governs management of steelhead propagation in the upper Columbia requires that certain conditions be met before a season can be opened on the Methow River.

• A minimum forecasted abundance of 9,550 fish total including wild and hatchery fish, 1,300 of which must be wild or native fish

•  Upper Columbia tributaries must also meet independent minimum escapement targets. 

Jackson said that 2017 steelhead forecasts above Bonneville Dam are at a 50-year low. Of those, the predicted steelhead coming over Priest Rapids Dam – the Upper Columbia fish – is about 3,400 fish, 615 of those wild. While the run is not yet completed, Jackson estimated another 1,000 to 1,200 fish would fall far short of the number needed to meet minimum requirements. 

“What that means is for the second year in a row, we’re not going to have an Upper Columbia steelhead fishery,” Jackson said.

What Jackson referred to as a “double tap” on the steelhead numbers came from a combination of the 2015 heat and drought conditions and a poor ocean environment for fish survival.

Jackson’s summary set the stage for an active audience participation with questions relating to management practices, hatchery plants and fishing regulations.

A Chelan county resident asked why the Wenatchee River has not been managed to create as good a steelhead fishery as that found in the Methow River. The reply was that the Wenatchee’s shorter length, lack of tributaries and habitat compared with the Methow were big factors accounting for the difference in the two waterways. 

Al Senyohl, president of the Steelhead Trout Club of Washington and part-time resident along the Methow River lamented the decline in steelhead numbers over the past decade and the economic loss to the area with the decrease in guides and sport fishermen from around the Northwest that used to fish the Methow.   

“I’m a catch-and-release fly fisherman and I’ve seen a remarkable steelhead recovery of nine or 10 years ago with four fish limits decline to 6,700 fish this year,” said Senyohl. “That’s not what I call a successful program.”

Larry Riggins, president of the Methow Valley Fly Fishers, has owned a piece of prime fishing real estate between Methow and Carlton, since 2005,

“It seems to me that if you put a million fish from our hatcheries and 250,000 from Wenatchee into the river and only get 6,000 back, something’s wrong,” Riggins said.

“We have seven dams and hundreds of miles that our fish have to cross to get to the ocean and back,” said Riggins “and we’re at the end of the chain.”

Riggins said a proposed change of management of upper Columbia hatcheries from WDFW to the Douglas County PUD is another concern that leaves everything “up in the air right now.”

“The Douglas County PUD owns the hatcheries and they own the fish,” said Riggins “but has contracted with WDFW for quite a period to run them.”

Chief Joseph Hatchery Manager Pat Phillips, who attended the meeting and knows a thing or two about steelhead propagation efforts, later summed up the mood of the fishermen who attended the meeting.

“We all want steelhead fishing the way it used to be,” said Phillips “but the agency has its hands tied in lots of ways because of the ESA requirements.”

Managers must work within the PUD mitigation program as part of the process within existing guidelines, Phillips said.

“Ocean and drought conditions being what they are, all you can do is rear good fish, release them, and hope for the best,” Phillips said.

On another topic, Jackson said one of the more consistent complaints WDFW has received from citizen surveys is the complicated fishing regs pamphlet.

“Our fishing pamphlet is terrible,” said Jackson. “The agency has been undergoing a rules simplification and reformatting the pamphlet.”

Jackson said the new product will be reviewed in a series of regional public meetings and an online link at wdfw.wa.gov/ to get further feedback.


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