Angling’s Hot Topic

Warming Trends on The Columbia River Prompt Fisheries’ Remedies

By Kathy Ursprung

Some mid-Columbia sports anglers and guides are concerned about the impact a proposed thermal angling sanctuary for steelhead at the mouth of the Deschutes River will have on the fishery.

Salmon and steelhead require cold rivers and streams to support their life cycle, from an egg in gravel to a smolt (juvenile fish) migrating downstream to adults returning home to spawn.

Fish authorities have identified 68 F as the safe upper-temperature limit.

“It can’t be too hot or they don’t do very well,” says Tucker Jones, who manages the Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Program at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

During migration, fish can find a cool-water respite in a sanctuary. They are attracted to the area because of the cooler water.

Physical changes in the river are causing warmer temperatures during the migration season. Warmer winters and changes in annual snowpack have resulted in earlier spring runoff and warmer summer temperatures.

Weather models predict worsening conditions heading into the early 2030s. Fishing enthusiasts from across the country plan vacations around sports angling on the mid-Columbia River, where they can expect to battle salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, bass, and other species. Sanctuaries, however, are closed to fishing.

Sports angling brings people from around the world to the mid-Columbia River to battle salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and other species that make their home here. Anglers are concerned about the impact and necessity of thermal angling sanctuaries, particularly one proposed for the mouth of the Deschutes River. Photo courtesy of Dave Eng

About 75 enthusiasts attended the Coastal Conservation Association’s local chapter meeting on January 15 to hear how Fish and Wildlife plans to proceed in implementing sanctuaries.

Tucker says the sanctuaries are a matter of how and when, not if. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission ordered the measure last year. He says sanctuaries will likely be part of a matrix of measures.

“We want to develop reasonable and prudent alternatives to avoid jeopardy of listed stock in the Columbia River,” Tucker says.

The sanctuaries may not be implemented every year. What measures will be used will depend on river conditions.

Thirteen salmon and steelhead species native to the Columbia River are endangered.

“We see this as precautionary,” Tucker says, noting the strategy is based on field data, but additional benefits can be hard to quantify.

Fish authorities took particular notice of temperature conditions in 2015, seen as a bellwether year for things to come. “It got very hot very early and very quickly, and it stayed hot a long time,”

Tucker says. “That caused a lot of problems.”

Anglers remember 2015 as a year of heavy die-offs in migratory fish.

Most work has been focused on steelhead because of their life cycle. Steelheads moving upriver one year typically don’t spawn until February or March of the next year. While chinook and sockeye salmon rush upstream to reach their spawning grounds in the same year, steelhead can stay in cold-water areas, leapfrogging from one to the next on their way to spawning grounds.

“Refuges can have a big impact on steelhead,” Tucker says.

What isn’t known is the impact on salmon and their migration strategy.

While 2015 raised the biggest alarms, 2017 also had a historically low summer steelhead run, despite healthier-looking river snowpack and hydrograph conditions. This prompted rapid interim measures in 2018, such as rolling angling closures and a closure inside the mouth of the Deschutes.

This year, Fish and Wildlife is reaching out to the angling community to let them know changes are coming and to give them the opportunity to comment.

A proposal is expected to be put before the Fish and Wildlife Commission at its June meeting in Gold Beach.

Since the Columbia fishery is managed by both Washington and Oregon, Tucker plans to work with Washington on strategies. The Washington Department of Ecology proposed a plan to regulate federal dams in relation to Columbia mainstem temperatures—as it has done with smaller dams—but the Seattle Times reported in February that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yanked its permit for this strategy.

Oregon used a relatively large sanctuary area as a short-term solution in 2018, but Tucker says he has time to craft a more precise sanctuary area for a long-term solution. The smaller the steelhead sanctuary, the less it affects nearby salmon fishing. “Whatever we do has to be recognizable, enforceable, definable in statute, and biologically meaningful,” he says.

About 75 people crowded into the Cousins’ Inn banquet room on January 15 to hear about plans for thermal angling sanctuaries to protect steelhead at the mouth of the Deschutes River and the impacts sanctuaries may have on angling.

Local anglers questioned whether the Deschutes provide much temperature relief, especially given warm water spills from Pelton Dam upriver. Tucker notes the Deschutes provide about a 3.6-degree difference.

Some anglers also questioned the validity of the temperature data compared to thermometer readings from their boats.

They also questioned the impacts of gillnetters, both tribal and commercial. Tucker says that take is established at 2 percent of the anticipated fish return for the year. Half of that number goes to tribal fishers, 20 percent to commercial, and 30 percent to sports anglers. Once that number is caught, the fisheries close.

The Deschutes is the first proposed sanctuary on the Oregon side of the Columbia.

“Our work is going to focus upstream of Bonneville Dam, where most of the priority areas are and also where most of the recreational impact and non-treaty impacts are,” Tucker says.

During the January 15 meeting, one angler asked about the economic impact. “Shouldn’t that be a cause of concern?” he asked.

“Short answer: No,” Tucker said. “The Endangered Species Act stipulates that it not be considered.”

Tucker says he wants to do what is right for the well-being of the fish, and he wants to see sports fishing on the Columbia. He says without fishing, interest in protecting the species would decline.

“I want people fishing,” he says, “but if I think there is a biological need, I’m going to put the sanctuaries in.”

A number of small communities along the Columbia heavily rely on sports angling for their economic well-being, according to Lisa Farquharson, CEO of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce.

“I think they need to hear some of the economic impacts on communities that could be totally shut down by some of the measures,” Lisa says.

Several meetings are expected to be held in Columbia River communities to present information on the proposal and to gather comment from the public. Meetings should be announced online at ODFW’s Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Program page.