Emergency Steelhead Fishing Closures in Lower Deschutes River

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This is an examination of the Emergency Steelhead Fishing Closures in Lower Deschutes River, but not a condemnation of it. 

I say this management approach sucks, not because nothing needs to be done, but because it is a tiny band-aid on a major wound that has been bleeding for at least 100 years. Nor will this closure cure any of the major problems. It punishes the least impactful user groups to bear the largest financial and social impacts. Sport fishers are already regulated to catch and release on wild steelhead. Professional fishing guides that use the Lower Deschutes River have long been some of the most vocal lobbyists for conservation regulations that protect all native fish.  This emergency regulation ends their season and the financial support that goes with it. Meanwhile industries who have much more impact on the survival of wild steelhead, such as land developers, hydro electric generators, barge shippers, both white and Native American commercial fishermen are not impacted by this closure at all.

Sports fishermen and professional fishing guides are the scapegoats! Why? Because we know something has to be done and will shoulder the responsibility, while other more impactful users in the Columbia River watershed will fight to keep the status quo. It appears that regulators will not cure the real reasons for this decline in the fishery.  They will make us carry the burden, while reducing our incomes. Think about how much easier the lives of these other users would be if wild steelhead and their human advocates didn't exist. Maybe the real plan is to get rid of us. 

Emergency fishing closures in Deschutes, other mid-Columbia tributaries begin Sept. 1 due to low steelhead returns

August 27, 2021

SALEM, Ore.—In response to extremely low returns to date of Columbia Basin upriver summer steelhead, ODFW is adopting additional emergency rules to increase protections for wild summer steelhead in certain Oregon Columbia River tributaries.

Passage counts of summer steelhead at Bonneville Dam from July 1 through Aug. 26 are the lowest since counts began in 1938. This continues a pattern of several years of low returns for many populations and comes during a period when flows throughout the basin are generally low because of drought. Within this run are ESA-listed wild summer steelhead destined for the Upper Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as several mid-Columbia tributaries.

On Aug. 16 and 23, fisheries scientists from the U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) downgraded the forecast for A-index summer steelhead from an already low preseason estimate of 89,200 to an in-season estimate of 35,000.

“We’re in uncharted territory here” said Shaun Clements, ODFW Deputy Administrator for Fish Division. “The combination of a historically low run on top of multiple years of low runs, and the very poor environmental conditions that seem likely to continue based on the most recent drought forecast, mean this is a regional problem.

We know these actions are going to negatively affect anglers this year and we don’t take that lightly,” Clements continued. “But they are unfortunately necessary at this time to give the fish the best chance to rebound and ensure the populations can support fisheries in future years.”

The rules will close steelhead fishing in the lower Umatilla and in additional areas of the Deschutes and John Day rivers beginning Sept. 1. See more details on the emergency regulations below. They are addition to existing steelhead closures in portions of the lower Deschutes and John Day rivers.

These changes come on top of measures already taken in mainstem Columbia River fisheries to protect summer steelhead during their migration to the tributaries. Because of the low pre-season forecasts for summer steelhead, fishing seasons in 2021 were crafted with additional measures to protect steelhead. These included extensive closures to retention of steelhead in mainstem angling areas (including some tributary river mouths), and implementation of no-angling sanctuaries in Oregon tributary mouths that serve as cold-water refuges for migrating steelhead.

The actions taken today are part of a multistate response and put protections in place in mid-Columbia Oregon tributaries that are expected to have low to very low returns. While wild steelhead mortalities are generally low under normal fishing regulations, and fisheries are not generally a limiting factor for recovery, the additional restrictions will further reduce effects on wild summer steelhead during this unprecedented low return.

“The fact that we’re having to make these restrictions underlines the urgency in addressing the factors that are ultimately causing these declines, notably addressing issues with the Columbia River hydrosystem and protecting/restoring habitat in the tributaries,” said Clements. “It is only by addressing these factors that we will really move the needle on recovery.”

Effective Sept. 1 the following emergency regulations are in place:

Deschutes River

  • From markers at lower end of Moody Rapids upstream to Sherars Falls, closed to angling for steelhead from Sept. 1-30.
  • From markers at lower end of Moody Rapids downstream to the mouth at Interstate 84 Bridge closed to angling (all species) from Sept. 1-30.

Managers will monitor the return and consider whether the fishery can reopen in October or whether further restrictions are needed.

Umatilla River

  • From Hwy 730 Bridge upstream to Threemile Dam, closed to retention of steelhead Sept. 1-Dec. 31.

John Day River

  • Upstream of Tumwater Falls, closed to angling for steelhead from Sept. 1-Dec. 31.

Walla Walla River

  • Upstream of the Oregon/Washington state line, closed to retention of steelhead Sept. 1-Dec. 31.

Anglers are reminded that several previously adopted emergency rules in the Columbia River Zone and certain adjacent tributary mouths, including the Deschutes and John Day rivers, remain in place. Always check the angling zone report at MyODFW recreation report for the latest regulations, https://myodfw.com/recreation-report/fishing-report/

Regional fishery managers will continue to monitor passage counts and fisheries and will make further adjustments to fisheries as warranted as the fall progresses.

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