Counts for the iconic Washington steelhead are at worrisome lows, according to wildlife officials, who blame the decline on drought and warming ocean temperatures
An icon of the Pacific Northwest, the steelhead, is facing mixed news on the Columbia Basin.
It’s projected that fewer than 131,000 of the fish will come through Bonneville Dam this year. That’s the lowest number in more than three decades and represents a fall of at least 45,000 for the third straight year.
On the Yakima River, about 1,600 steelhead were counted at Prosser Dam for the year ending June 30 — less than half the number the year before and the lowest number in more than a decade.
On the other hand, the declines come amid signs of promising habitat improvement and better environmental conditions for a tenacious species that has overcome numerous obstacles over the last century.
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Biologists primarily blame the recent declines on droughts in 2014 and 2015, along with warming ocean temperatures. But the warming has dissipated for now, and high waters from a relatively wet winter and spring give hope for recovery of the resilient steelhead, which is the state’s official fish.
“There’s definitely a level of concern,” Yakama Nation research scientist Chris Frederiksen said.
The steelhead is a rainbow trout that spends some of its youth in fresh water, migrates to the sea, then returns to fresh water to spawn. Typically between 8 and 11 pounds, they can, in some cases, grow to 40 pounds. Like salmon, their survival has been challenged by dams, low water flows and other barriers to their journey between the Pacific Ocean and freshwater spawning grounds hundreds of miles away.
Habitat improvements make the Yakima Basin something of a success story. Steelhead here haven’t declined as much as in most regions, said Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead initiative organizer Nick Chambers.
“Things changed in the ocean and also there’s been a lot of habitat work and other things that have started to improve our run,” said Yakama Nation Fisheries data manager Bill Bosh. “If we can get 1,600 (of the fish to go up Yakima River) out of 130,000 at Bonneville, that’s not so bad. But certainly we’d much rather see the 6,000.”
Steelhead habitat on tribal lands in Toppenish Creek and Satus Creek have gotten the most attention and improvement, while Bosh said the tribe would like to see more work done above Roza Dam. He said Yakima steelhead should also benefit from upcoming projects, such as restoration of flood plain between Union Gap and Selah Gap as well as the removal of Nelson Dam on the Naches River.
State wildlife officials encourage the fishing of walleye, smallmouth bass and channel catfish to reduce predators for steelfish, especially from Union Gap to McNary Dam near the Tri-Cities. Those nonnative species can be dangerous to steelhead and low flows tend to magnify the effect by causing a “feeding frenzy,” Frederiksen said.