After historically low steelhead runs in 2017, Oregon is hoping that numbers improve this year.
So far this winter season, Willamette Falls has recorded 596 steelhead on their migration upriver to spawn. Even though the steelhead numbers appear to be bouncing back from last year’s shortage, the Pacific Northwest has experienced a large decrease of salmon and steelhead populations in the past decade.
In 2017, the population dropped to a historic low. According to the Willamette Falls Annual Fish Passage Counts, only 822 steelhead returned for their winter spawn, down from the average 5,778. The extreme shortage has added to the local community’s fear that Willamette steelhead could be going extinct. Currently, Upper Willamette River steelhead are on the federal threatened species list. The steelhead population only fills a fraction of the first recorded 26,647 winter run in 1971.
This issue isn’t exclusive to the Willamette Valley area but is part of a regional environmental crisis. On their website, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife report they have tried to address the steelhead issue since 1997. That year, they established the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds to decrease the gap between current and historical population averages.
“Many populations of chinook, coho, chum and steelhead were at a tiny fraction of their historic levels,” the website states. “At the same time, 13,326 miles of Oregon’s streams and rivers and 30 lakes did not meet the water quality standards that supported drinking water, recreation and fisheries.”
The steelhead are suffering from harsh ocean conditions, drought and habitat loss, according to a Statesman Journal article published on their website in Aug. 2017. One of the leading problems for Willamette steelhead are the sea lions that reside in the Willamette Falls area. According to the same Statesman Journal article, the sea lion population wiped out one-fourth of the steelhead population in 2016.
The Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watershed states, “Many factors combined to reduce the number of anadromous fish returning to Oregon streams to spawn. Factors that resulted from lack of understanding of how human activities affect salmonids included harvest, hatcheries, hydropower, and habitat changes. Natural factors, like predators and ocean conditions, also affect fish populations.”
The Oregon rivers have supplied local residents with employment, food and recreation. Many communities rely on steelhead, salmon and other fish populations to bring in business. ODFW has acknowledged this and is working toward resolving the issue.
The Recreation Fishing Report for the Northwest Zone on the ODFW website states that “the Willamette winter steelhead fishery has yet to get going in earnest, but improving conditions should give anglers the break they’ve needed to effectively go after those winter fish.”
The Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife News Bulletin posted the events of a public meeting where Laurie Weitkamp of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains, “If you look at forecasts, we’re getting back to more normal conditions, although there is still some warm water to the north. In 2018, the cooler coastal waters should be good for salmon entering the ocean.”
After a year of uncertainty, the actions taken to prevent the local steelhead population may be paying off. The steelhead numbers are starting to creep back up to the historical averages, but they aren’t out of rough water yet. There are still several weeks left in the winter season before any final conclusions can be made about the current run.