Federal review necessary for low Snake River steelhead numbers

Federal officials will review the steep decline of threatened Snake River steelhead over the past five years and consider the next steps to be taken.

Numbers of both hatchery and federally protected wild steelhead returning to Idaho, eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon have been declining for the past four years. In 2019, a 25-year low in returns prompted wildlife officials to close steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River and its tributaries, and parts of the Snake River, while open fisheries saw their bag limits reduced.

The free fall has triggered a review under an adaptive management provision of the federal government’s plan to protect the fish. The National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration are charged with quickly completing an analysis to determine if steelhead numbers can be expected to decline even further over the next two years, and if so, what steps can be taken to stop or slow the slide.

A provision in the federal plan, known as a biological opinion, requires NOAA Fisheries to closely monitor fish numbers and potentially take extraordinary measures should those numbers drop sharply. The plan includes two levels of alarm, the first of which was tripped by the steep decline of wild Snake River steelhead from a 30-year high recorded in 2014-15 to last year’s low return.

The next level, known as a significant-decline trigger, would require federal officials to consider a number of measures known as “rapid response actions,’ ranging from short term actions such as increasing the amount of water spilled at Snake and Columbia river dams, to long-term measures, including the last-resort option of breaching of the four Lower Snake River dams. (Lewiston Tribune)