Summer steelhead returns to the upper Columbia and Snake rivers are forecast to be the worst in three decades in 2017 with angling restrictions almost certain — and partial closures possible — at popular spots like the mouths of the Cowlitz, Lewis, Wind and Deschutes rivers plus Drano Lake.
State biologists are forecasting a return of just 130,700 steelhead to waters upstream of Bonneville Dam, down from 182,737 in 2016 and 261,400 in 2015. Returns were 601,000 as recently as 2009.
In worst shape are the Group B steelhead headed for Idaho. Group B are larger, later-returning steelhead headed for Idaho’s Clearwater River, a major tributary of the Snake River.
Forecasts are for 6,200 hatchery-origin Group B steelhead and a mere 1,100 wild Group B steelhead.
Hatcheries in the Clearwater basin need 2,000 adult steelhead for spawning.
The federal Endangered Species Act limits non-Indian harvest of wild Group A and wild Group B steelhead to 2 percent incidental catch in the process of catching fish from healthy stocks.
That means only 22 wild Group B steelhead can be killed in the plethora of sport fisheries between the Columbia River mouth and Idaho, plus in commercial gillnet fisheries between Woodland and Beacon Rock in the fall.
“So, not very much there,’’ said Ron Roler, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Tucker Jones, ocean and Columbia River salmon manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said 65 percent to 70 percent of the catch is upstream of Bonneville.
Most of the steelhead harvest in Oregon comes at the mouth of the Deschutes River or in the John Day arm, said Chris Kern, deputy administrator of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The arm is the seven-mile stretch where the Columbia inundates the lower John Day River.
Steelhead seek out and rest in cool-water spots in the Columbia River as they migrate upstream. Downstream of Bonneville Dam, those spots include the mouths of the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers.
In the Columbia Gorge, those spots include the mouths of Wind River, White Salmon River and Herman Creek. Drano Lake, a large backwater of the Little White Salmon River, has a very popular 24-hour-a-day fishery in August and early September.
Roler said steelhead fishing restrictions and possible closures will hit hardest east of the Cascades, where most of the catch occurs.
However, restrictions are needed on the west side of the mountains, too, he said.
“We need to show efforts to reduce harvest in the lower river, to share the pain,’’ Roler said.
Among the options being considered are a daily limit of one hatchery steelhead, a closure of night fishing, a 30-inch maximum size limit and gear restrictions.
“Even with a one-fish bag or a night closure, it’s still not going to get us where we need to be,’’ Roler said. “I believe some sort of closure somewhere will be necessary.’’
Capt. Jeff Wickersham of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police, said a night closure would be a good start.
Wickersham recounted an incident where officers found three wild Group B steelhead illegally harvested in one night at Drano Lake.
“A night closure across the board will curtail a lot of our problems,’’ he said.
A month-long closure at Drano Lake was one option mentioned at a public meeting last week in Vancouver. No specific dates were mentioned.
Jones said outmigration conditions in the warm-water summer of 2015 most likely took a toll on summer steelhead.
However, ocean conditions for young fish in the north Pacific in 2015 were among the worst on record and are suspected to be the No. 1 culprit for the poor returns, he said.