Tucker Jones is certainly comfortable speaking in front of a surly audience. This much is clear from the outset. The burly, self-deprecating Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist is standing in front of a group of 50 guides and anglers on a blustery spring evening at his agency’s office overlooking the Columbia River in The Dalles, Oregon. Jones and his colleague, Rod French, who manages ODFW’s Deschutes River fisheries program, are here as the bearers of bad news. Before they begin their presentation, a Tidewater Lines barge glides ominously past the picture windows opposite the lectern where Jones is just clearing his throat, as if to remind anglers that the river was re-made a half-century ago. It isn’t just for fish anymore. “Well, as most of you know,” Jones begins cordially, going for a yarn-around the campfire tone, “steelhead and salmon runs in the Columbia are in pretty bad shape this year. So we’re here to tell you about some management actions we have to take.”
It isn’t Jones’ nor any other fisheries manager’s fault, but wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin are on the verge of collapse. Spring chinook counts are at a deathly anemic six percent of the ten-year average, with just a few thousand fish counted so far. Dams and hatcheries shoulder much of the blame for a long, painfully slow decline, but the drop from not much to almost nothing comes on the heels of horrible out-migration conditions during the drought of 2015. The infamous “blob” in the northern Pacific that year is still taking its toll. What few fish survived the hot, unwelcoming river conditions on their way out to the ocean were greeted by utterly inhospitable saltwater once they reached it.
Anglers are all ears in The Dalles this evening, however, to hear about the deplorable condition of wild B-run steelhead in the Columbia Basin. B-runs are the unpoetic name fisheries biologists have given to steelhead that spend two years at sea instead of one. These fish, sometimes called “two-salt” steelhead, can obtain great size and power, and start arriving to their natal streams later in the year—generally mid-August—than their A-run counterparts, which typically start appearing in June. The latter tip the scales at a pedestrian four or five pounds; the former start at twice that. If a B-run fish has spent a third year in the ocean, it might weigh more than 20 pounds. Most B-runs in the Columbia are headed to Idaho’s Clearwater River, but they often stray up the Deschutes and other tribs looking for cooler water.
These autumn steelies have drawn fly-anglers to Columbia tributaries as reliably as elk descend into the rut around the same time of year. At least a million B-runs swam home every year before concrete transformed the Columbia into a series of lakes. But this year, the forecast for returns of these steelhead is a mere 1,100 fish for the entire Columbia watershed, which is roughly the size of France. Imagine touring from Cherbourg to Marseille and learning that cheese and wine were going extinct. Only 1,100 bottles of Bordeaux remain, roughly equal to one afternoon’s consumption in Paris, and it’s unclear if more could ever be made. The scale of the economic and cultural calamity caused by lack of steelhead and salmon is just as great in the Pacific Northwest. And the odds of recovery grow slimmer as the number of wild B-runs diminishes. A-runs are also struggling, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there are now far more fishers than fish. Far more.
“Endangered Species Act rules limit angler-induced mortality to two percent of the total population,” says Jones, now bracing for impact behind a more serious tone. “If we do nothing, we’re predicting a loss of about 3.3 percent of this population, or about 36 fish. We have to limit angler impact to about 20 fish.”
The math is sitting there for all to see: The number of fishermen in this small meeting room in The Dalles outnumber the amount of wild B-run steelhead that can legally die at the hand of all anglers between Astoria, Oregon, and Stanley, Idaho, a distance of nearly a thousand miles. The least of their problems are flyfishers: A commercial gill-net fishery, a commercial tribal fishery, a gear-intensive sport fishery, and most fatally, eight enormous death-star dams exist in this marathon gauntlet.
How steelheading looks in good times.
The good news for catch-and-release flyfishers: Regs for B-run steelhead will mostly be unchanged, albeit with a shortage of available fish. But if you like bonking a hatchery fish for the barbie, your chances will be diminished. Segments of the Columbia will be closed to steelhead retention beginning in August—for a month in the lower river (Astoria to John Day Dam, including the mouth of the Deschutes), and two months in the mid-Columbia and its tributaries (John Day River to U.S. 395 in Eastern Oregon). The good news is tentative. If steelhead numbers are below what managers have predicted, more restrictive closures will apply.
While guides breathe a sigh of relief that they won’t need to mothball their boats this season, some anglers question whether the closures will be enough. Drought has decreased chances at B-run steelhead in the Deschutes and other Columbia tribs. And management changes, particularly the 2005 court order to spill water between dams for the benefit of salmonids—has meant fewer B-runs detouring up cold-water refuges like the Deschutes on their way to Idaho. Overall, the spill program, the results of which have been monitored for 12 years, has been a major benefit for all Columbia salmonids. So good that, beginning in 2018, that same court has ordered increased spill. But can spill alone recover fish?
David Moskowitz, of the non-profit advocacy group The Conservation Angler, seems to recognize in his persistent line of questioning the quandary in which Jones and other managers have been placed. On the one hand, higher-ranking agency administrators, and certainly the bulk of guides and outfitters, are loathe to accept, much less call for, more restrictive closures, which affect agency budgets by reducing sales of fishing licenses and tags, and more directly affect guides by putting them out of work. But maintaining angler opportunity has its costs. It doesn’t seem likely, Moskowitz points out, that already-meager monitoring and enforcement will be able to accurately track less than a thousand B-run steelhead amidst a full open season on fall chinook. “And this is occurring at a time when wild populations of fish are at their most vulnerable,” Moskowitz says. “We’d like to be able to say that the drought two years ago was the low point, and that these fish will rebound as they’ve done in the past. But the numbers tell us they might not. I wonder, are we doing enough for these fish?”
The open-ended question prompts an avalanche of angler opinion on who or what is to blame. Jones listens to them patiently. The fault lies with sea lions. Cormorants. Commercial fishermen. Tribal fishermen. The water’s too clear. Too turbid. Too cold. Too warm. Hatchery fish stray too much. Too many people in the region. Not enough people in the region—if we had more we could get another congressperson. Jones finally weighs in. “I would just remind you all,” he says, this time in the gentle tone of a science teacher whose student-led discussion has gone awry, “that the biggest taker of fish in this system lies just upstream.” He pauses and thumbs in the direction of The Dalles Dam. “And there are seven more just like that one.”