Steelhead are returning in much lower than normal numbers this fall

Oct 12, 2021

This fall's steelhead trout returns up the Columbia and Snake Rivers are much lower than the normal annual average.
Credit Courtesy of NOAA

It's been a bad year for steelhead runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers. It’s so bad that some anglers are calling for other fishers to voluntarily limit their catches.

Josh Mills, with the Wild Steelhead Coalition, a group consisting of anglers who hope to preserve the run of their favorite fish, says the ten-year average return is about 250,000 fish counted at Bonneville Dam.

"This year at Bonneville we’re going to be lucky to break 70,000 total. So we’re at 30% of the 10-year average at best, and really scraping the bottom of the barrel to make sure the runs continue," he said.

Mills says the number is the lowest that has crossed Bonneville Dam since the count began back in the 1940s, and the culmination of a severe downward trend over the last five years.

The low returns have prompted curtailment of the fishing season in some areas of the Columbia, but fishing continues on the Snake and Clearwater rivers.

Mills says he plans to limit his own catch this year and asks others to do the same.

“We have to be honest about our role in adult steelhead mortality and our impact. So if folks are going to go out this year and fish, and that's their right, maybe it's a chance to catch one and be done. Or maybe think about what does the experience mean to them so we have enough seeds for future years, that those crops return, if you know what I'm saying," he said.

Mills says there are several factors he believes contribute to the declines, including changes in habitat as a result of climate change that have impacted the fish's food supply. He also blames the Lower Snake River dams, which are a formidable obstacle for fish as they return to their spawning grounds.