Where are Steelhead Headed? [Archive] - Fly Fishing Forum

: Where are Steelhead Headed?

10-16-2006, 07:00 PM
There is a great chapter by Peter Soverel in Dec Hogan's latest book that talks about where steelhead are going if we do not change current practice. Here are some quotes:

I should make clear that, when I talk about steelhead, I am talking about wild, naturally spawned and reared Parasalmo mykiss (I prefer the Russian taxonomy), not their distant hatchery outlaws. Wild steelhead are the genuine article; hatchery fish are not. The scientific literature is resplendent with the reasons why. Anglers know, or at least should know, from personal observation and experience that hatchery steelhead:
• Are not native, not wild, and do not behave as wild fish.
• Are much less responsive to the fly.
• Enter the rivers over an extremely compressed period. Wild steelhead exhibit wide diversity in run and spawn timing and thus provide year-round angling opportunity with at least some wild steelhead entering rivers on virtually every tide.
• Migrate rapidly to their release location.
• Are known to be harmful to native populations.

Perhaps the most basic question concerns the future of the fish themselves. Without robust wild populations, we will not have a sport. Ask any experienced steelheader whether his fishing is better now than in the past. Invariably, he will note that his angling and angling options are, at best, faint echoes of what was available just a few decades ago. If this downward trend continues for even a short period beyond the present, then the prospects for steelhead and steelhead angling are-to put it mildly- less than hopeful (pp 286/287).

What happens if, instead of joining with another wild fish that has passed through the same environmental lenses, this survivor meets and spawns with a hatchery steelhead? We should expect that their progeny would survive at a lower level because they lack the fitness of progeny from wild-wild pairings. Thirty years of field research be Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists focused exactly on this issue confirmed our expectation. The study compared the reproductive success of different pairing possibilities between wild and hatchery Kalama River steelhead:
• Native Kalama summer runs (both parents are native Kalama fish);
• Mixed parentage (hatchery male-native female or native male-hatchery female);
• Hatchery-only parentage (both parents hatchery-origin fish).

The findings? Only native-native pairings produced returning adult steelhead. The contributions of all other pairings to the returning adult populations, in the techno-speak of the study, could not be statistically distinguished from “zero.” In other words, the hatchery-hatchery, hatchery-wild, and wild-hatchery progeny were so ill-adapted-so unfit for the environmental challenges they faced over their lifetime-that none of them survived to adulthood. As predicted by Darwin, differences count in life.
The results of this careful, long-term scientific study make clear two essential facts. First, hatchery fish are not the same as nor are they an acceptable substitute for wild fish. Second, permitting hatchery fish to interact with wild fish has the effect of dramatically decreasing the productivity of the wild fish (pp 296/297).

Pacific steelhead and salmon on the West coast are in crisis-not because we do not understand the causes for their declines. Instead, we know perfectly well what needs to be done but have instead insisted on following management practices that we know are harmful: excessive harvest, inadequate escapements, hatchery introductions, land use practices that are both unsustainable and detrimental to steelhead, and son on. We have further compounded the crisis by focusing our money and efforts on the stocks that are at the highest risk while largely ignoring other stocks less at risk, all the while continuing to apply management regimes known to be harmful. We also have examples of what will work if we have the courage to trust in the resilience of the fish themselves while providing for their basic requirements.

In short, the problem is not the fish. We and the manner in which we manage steelhead are the problem. Unless and until we change the basic management paradigms, we can be certain that, in the lifetime of all you reading this beautiful new book celebrating steelhead, the species will be functionally extinct in what is now their already greatly diminished range (pg 308)

Are we going to let it happen?

10-16-2006, 10:08 PM
Not an encouraging analysis. Very scary, as a matter of fact. I cannot think of a single river south of the B.C. line that has not been contaminated by hatchery steelhead.

A question though: how many generations does it take for a hatchery run to become a "wild" one? The study says hatchery fish are not producing returning adults, but the odd fish--a statistically insignificant number, apparently--born of stream-spawning returning hatchery parents will return, and perhaps spawn with either w x w, h x w. or h x h origin fish (again, improbable statistically, but it can happen).

Any comments on this? I've caught some splendid Clackamas River summer steelhead (a totally artificial run) that were, to all outward appearances, wild fish (high straight-rayed dorsal fin, intact adipose fin). I assume these fish were spawned in the Clackamas.

Can stocks left to spawn naturally over a period of several generations, without contamination of hatchery stocks, gradually repopulate a river system with self-sustaining runs of "wild" steelhead? If so, there is hope for the future, provided our various Game Commissions quickly dedicate themselves to eliminating hatchery supplementation of steelhead (fat chance).

Politics, at least at present, trumps science. Many anglers have an unrealistic expectation in terms of numbers of fish. Much of this stems from the very successful hatchery programs, in terms of returning adults, in the late 20th century, that saw even tiny rivers (e.g. in Oregon: Necanicum, Big Creek, Gnat Creek, Eagle Creek) producing huge runs of fish, huge far beyond the native carrying capacity of these streams. Anglers expected the fish & game commissions to provide them with limits of steelhead every time out. When these anglers cannot catch steelhead easily, they quit buying licenses.

There are also commercial fisheries for steelhead on the Columbia that lobby hard for increased hatchery supplementation.

One solution in vogue now is to declare certain streams "wild fish only." This seems the best we can do right now, but, I still would like some response to the question I posed above: whether wild spawning, over time, will swamp out the non-adaptive hatchery genes, and lead to self-sustaining runs of wild fish.


10-16-2006, 10:40 PM
There is another study on the Hood River cited on Spey pages that is not quite as grim. Also, I understand that there are some rivers in the Great Lakes that now have runs of "wild" fish. I believe these at one time were all Skamania hatchery fish. I hope some biologists will respond.

How do we get good science back making the choices? I am sick of seeing netting on the Columbia when there is absolutely no reason for it. Salmon can be removed at a fish ladder without killing steelhead or other endangered runs. A high proportion of fish I caught on the Deschutes this summer had net marks, even the small ones that are supposed to "slip through."

As far as numbers go, Pete Soverel lists the estimates of steelhead numbers at the turn of the century. They are an order of magnitude better than anything the hatcheries are able to do today. Also, it is my understanding that hatchery production drops off over time for the same hatchers - putting out more smolts and getting fewer returns. I personall do not want them competing with the wild fish.

10-16-2006, 11:26 PM

I totally agree with you on the insanity of netting the Columbia. As you point out, the fish could be taken at the Bonneville or other upstream ladders with dipnets or live traps and nearly every fish taken could be assessed as to whether it should be killed or returned alive to the river. Morphological differences, as well as hatchery fin-clips, could be used to differentiate between the stocks that could be harvested and those that could not. This goes, of course, for salmon as well as steelhead.

Again, politics trumps common sense and the long-term welfare of the resource.

Thanks for pointing this out,


10-18-2006, 12:34 AM
Wild Steelhead Coalition Unveils Plan for Washington’s Wild Steelhead
By Richard T. Burge, Nathan J. Mantua, and Jack W. Berryman

Wild steelhead are in crisis throughout Washington. Except for a handful of stocks on the Olympic Peninsula and in southwest Washington, wild steelhead in the state have been in a prolonged period of serious decline, and most of Washington’s wild steelhead stocks are either already listed on the federal Endangered Species Act, chronically failing to meet habitat-related escapement goals, or are in a period of declining abundance. Wild steelhead declines in Washington are just one part of a much broader pattern of decline.
In the past century, the entire Pacific Northwest has witnessed catastrophic declines in wild salmonid populations and run productivity due to a combination of degraded freshwater and estuarine habitat, poor hatchery practices, hydropower dams, natural cycles in river- and ocean-carrying capacities, and management and harvest policies.
In the mid-1950s, more than 125 Washington rivers produced wild steelhead harvests, and 120,000 to 160,000 steelhead were annually harvested by Washington anglers. Recently, only 11 rivers have remained open to harvest, and by the 2002–03 season, the harvest was just 3,554 fish, most of them from a few rivers on the Olympic Peninsula.
History shows that Maximum Sustained Harvest (MSH) concepts, the ruling management philosophy for Washington’s wild steelhead, are a prescription for periodic and long-term escapement failures and fishery closures. The high harvest rates promoted by MSH management aim to keep spawner numbers low. MSH harvest rates are based on an attempt to maximize annual harvests, not on protecting the long-term resilience of the target fish populations. For Washington’s steelhead, the combination of harvest-driven low escapements and unrecognized and/or unpredictable natural changes in river and ocean productivity results in run sizes that often fail to meet escapement goals. As a consequence of chronically depleted runs, the health and resilience of the steelhead populations are jeopardized.
Only during periods of high run productivity do MSH policies meet the management objectives of providing substantial harvest opportunities without compromising stock productivity. It is clear that productivity varies in space and time due to both human- and climate-related changes in river, estuary, and ocean conditions. It is also apparent that healthy steelhead populations exhibit a great deal of diversity in life histories and that this diversity is critical for maintaining population resilience in a variable environment. The MSH concept is not focused on diversity and fails to account for time-space changes in productivity. The flaws in the MSH concept are unfortunately demonstrated in streams such as those on Hood Canal and south Puget Sound, where steelhead populations plummeted one to two decades ago and still remain at low levels in spite of prolonged harvest closures.
An additional serious problem with MSH concepts regarding Washington’s steelhead is that the data used to develop escapement goals are based on run sizes and productivity starting in 1976. By then—significantly—many stocks were already in severe decline. For example, the annual harvest on the Skagit River in the 1950s (when spawner escapement was not counted as part of the run) was often higher than the total runs (harvest plus wild escapement) in the years after 1976. Contrary to MSH’s scientific underpinnings, many of Washington’s rivers with very low wild steelhead spawner populations have failed to rebound.

The Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC) believes that the present MSH policies place the remaining few healthy stocks at an unnecessary and unacceptable risk of overfishing and fishing closures. MSH policies put the steelhead populations of the Olympic Peninsula rivers at risk of collapse and place Peninsula steelhead fisheries at risk of closure if (and likely when) productivity declines from the high levels experienced in the recent past. With this probable occurrence, all wild-stock fisheries in Washington may be closed to fishing.
The four pillars supporting the health of wild anadromous fish populations are abundance, life history and genetic diversity, spatial distribution, and productivity. Each of these pillars supports the inherent resilience of a steelhead population, its capacity to bounce back from short periods of low abundance. The MSH concept runs counter to the first three pillars and by doing so, also undermines the fourth.
Washington’s existing habitat-related stress on salmonid populations is periodically amplified by natural downturns in productivity related to changes in ocean conditions, regional drought, extreme flooding, and landslide episodes. Layering MSH harvest policies upon these largely unpredictable changes and the highly degraded habitat amounts to a management philosophy that errs strongly on the side of providing maximum numbers of wild steelhead for harvest at the risk of seriously depleting spawner abundances and diversity. The high harvest rates that come with MSH fisheries remove the least productive and most heavily fished components of the stock as a whole, thereby reducing the abundance and life history diversity of the stock complex, which ultimately leads to a reduced spatial distribution of spawners. This combination results in a quadruple threat to the long-term health of wild steelhead stocks.
The WSC believes that co-managers must adopt approaches that foster wild steelhead resilience. To that end, the WSC contends that optimizing the balance between providing quality steelhead-fishing opportunities and protecting steelhead ecosystems demands a shift away from past MSH policies toward a greater use of Wild Fish Release (WFR) and selective gear regulations. Increasing the use of WFR while reducing harvest would offer immediate economic benefits in the form of maximizing recreational seasons and quality fishing. At the same time, WFR policies would yield immediate ecological benefits by vastly reducing fishing impacts on the four pillars that affect adult spawner populations. A greater use of selective gear regulations would increase the protection for resident rainbow trout, parr, smolts, and fish of other species that are integral parts of steelhead ecosystems.
The WSC has developed a management plan for wild steelhead based on the best science, ecological principles, and angler support. This plan provides for improved conservation of healthy stocks and recovery of those that are now depleted, with goals to rebuild all stocks. It also allows for high stock productivity periods to help maintain viable populations and quality fisheries through the low productive periods. The WSC also suggests limited harvest fisheries on wild fish when their abundance is 50 percent above the minimal escapements prescribed by MSH models. Reformed hatchery production should continue to provide the lion’s share of the steelhead harvest so that wild fish runs can remain healthy and provide for quality WFR full-season fisheries.
A shift away from a focus on maximizing the harvest to a focus on protecting and restoring the wealth the fish bring to our watersheds is a long-term philosophy that promises to benefit the overall health of Washington’s wild steelhead. For a copy of the entire plan, visit www.wildsteelheadcoalition.com.

10-18-2006, 08:30 AM
There is another study on the Hood River cited on Spey pages that is not quite as grim. Also, I understand that there are some rivers in the Great Lakes that now have runs of "wild" fish. I believe these at one time were all Skamania hatchery fish. I hope some biologists will respond.

Ontario has quite a few runs that are entirely streambred (not Skamania though), self-sustaining, and these all started as hatchery fish. However, we have to keep in mind that an adult steelhead in the Great Lakes is at the top of the food chain (excluding human predation) so a hatchery fish has a shot at survival and returning to spawn, producing prodgeny that also have a decent shot at survival and return. If stocking ceases on a Great lakes trib, amongst the survivors, eventually a genetic strain appears that is akin to a wild one.

Hatchery fish in the ocean have much higher odds against them so we shouldn't equate the two systems.

This Grand River streambred fish wouldn't look out of place in a wild population out west. It doesn't have the typical hatchery look.

10-18-2006, 09:04 AM
Eric,Ted and Rich
Intelligent and well thought out posts !!

10-22-2006, 05:36 PM
I'm still unsure what the issue is with wild vs hatchery steelhead. If the Great lakes stockers can become feral and eventually wild, what is stopping the west coast fish? Is it just the oceanic predation or a more complex set of reasons?

I've never really understood this issue. Could someone point me to a comprehensive link on the topic?

P.S. I answered my own questions at http://www.wildsteelheadcoalition.com/

10-25-2006, 11:28 PM
"The WSC also suggests limited harvest fisheries on wild fish when their abundance is 50 percent above the minimal escapements prescribed by MSH models."

VERY sad to see the WSC advocate a kill fishery under any circumstance. Alas, politics is politics. I support the org and as a member, I understand the politics that may have come to bear in this advocating compromising position...

but it is unfortunate - and it really undermines the argument against MSH. If, as the WSC claims (and I agree) - MSH is a broken model, then why use it to justify a kill fishery?

I'd like to see a bit more integrity in the org's position, instead of politival expediency - or worse, if the powers that be really think that ever reinstating a wild steelhead harvest is a good idea, then maybe I'll reconsider my membership....

there's no rhetorical power to the argument. When he's rebuilding something, a craftsman doesn't measure with a broken yardstick.:tsk_tsk:

10-31-2006, 11:01 AM
thanks for your comments on the WSC management plan, it's good to get feedback from interested parties, and especially good to get feedback from members of the organization.

Perhaps I can add a bit about the reasoning behind the WSC's proposed management plan that includes room for limited harvest fisheries on wild steelhead when populations are deemed healthy and productive, with spawner escapements at least 50% greater than the escapement goal.

When we drafted our plan, our aim was to develop a set of management guidelines that would promote our goals: "To conserve, preserve, protect and restore the natural diversity, abundance, distribution, and productivity of wild steelhead populations and, wherever possible, manage for sustaining and quality steelhead fisheries."

From these goals, we then developed a set of management objectives:

Aim for annual wild steelhead escapements that significantly exceed Maximum Sustained Harvest (MSH) escapement goals.
Improve protections for rearing juveniles, migrating smolts, and rainbow trout.
Recover seasonal runs and other life history traits.
Offer fisheries that focus on maximum sustained recreation (MSR), rather than MSH.
Minimize the negative impacts of hatchery programs.
Conduct research into the causes for declines that can lead to the development of science-based recovery plans.
Develop a system of Wild Salmonid Management Zones within each ESU to protect and restore fully functioning ecosystems for anadromous and resident fish populations.

Allowing a limited harvest when run-sizes are at least 50% above escapement goals, in our view, does not pose major risks to any of those objectives. We understand that many anglers are philosophically opposed to killing any wild steelhead, yet we also felt that it was important to recognize that catch and release steelhead fisheries inadvertently kill some wild fish each year. We have advocated counting catch and release mortalities as part of the annual "harvest".

So compare the MSH approach used on the Hoh against the management plan we've proposed. The MSH escapement goal is 2400 fish. In a year with a run of 6000 steelhead, the MSH harvest policy would allow for a harvest of 3600 steelhead (and escapement of 2400). Our approach would allow for a harvest of 1200 steelhead (50% of the 2400 fish above our new escapement goal of 3600). Escapement would then be 4800 fish. Half those 1200 would be allocated to the tribes, the other half allocated to sportsfishers (600 each). If you assumed that sportsfishers would catch and release 2000 fish over the course of the season, and a conservative 10% catch and release mortality, 200 of the sportsfishing allocation would go to catch and release fishers. The other 400 to directed harvest. The total harvest rate for the year's return works out to be 1200/6000, or 20%.

Perhaps this is still unacceptably high because it compromises the diversity of the returning spawners, but based on numbers of fish alone it is difficult to make strong science-based arguments about a 20% harvest rate on a population returning at levels more than double their MSH -escapement goal.

And it is also important to acknowledge that this kind of management precision isn't possible, given all the unknowns (how many fish actually return compared to the pre-season prediction, and how many fish are actually caught during the season).

However, designing fisheries to allow significant angling opportunity while putting more fish on the spawning grounds, and better protecting resident fish and rearing juveniles, is clearly the direction we want to go.

We welcome your ideas for improving the future for steelhead and steelhead fisheries, and thanks for raising tough questions and important issues.

Nate Mantua
VP of Science and Education