Understanding the sockeye and steelhead closure on the Columbia River mainstem

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The Columbia River mainstem closes Thursday, June 25 to fishing for salmon and steelhead from the Megler-Astoria Bridge to the Highway 395 bridge in Pasco.

With the season originally scheduled to run until July 31, the closure comes as a disappointment for many anglers, as well as for fishery managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), all of whom were hoping to see a longer fishing window in a summer when everyone’s been spending more time at home amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But there are good reasons for the closure.

Facts and figures

This year’s preseason forecast estimated that 246,300 sockeye would enter the mouth of the Columbia River. That represented a significant increase from the 63,223-fish estimate for the 2019 return, and enough to support a summer sockeye fishery for the first time since 2018.

Fishery managers in Washington and Oregon (who jointly manage shared waters of the Columbia) agreed to open the river to salmon and steelhead on May 16 below Interstate 5, and upstream waters opened June 16. So why is the mainstem closing after being open for only a short time?

Well, there are a few different reasons, according to Ryan Lothrop, Columbia River fishery manager with WDFW.

“We were definitely seeing a much higher catch rate than we initially anticipated,” Lothrop said. “After a rainy early June, the weather really started improving in the past week, and river flows were primed to allow sockeye to start making their way through fishing hotspots in the lower Columbia.”

Numerous Columbia and Snake River salmon runs are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and any fisheries impacting these species have strict catch and mortality limits as a result.

Snake River sockeye are listed as endangered, with ESA impacts capped at 1% of the total run entering the Columbia River. That means that when the run estimate is 246,300 sockeye, 2,463 of those fish may be caught or killed as part of fishing activities.

As of June 21, that catch number had already been exceeded, with 2,721 sockeye caught below Bonneville Dam.

Sockeye counts at Bonneville typically peak around July 1. With warm weather in the forecast and the run building toward its usual peak, fishing impacts were likely to remain high over the next week, as well, which made the sudden closure absolutely necessary, Lothrop said.

Steelhead closure

Some may wonder: if the sockeye catch is what necessitated the closure, why can’t steelhead remain open? Can’t anglers catch-and-release sockeye while the river remains open for steelhead?

It’s a good question, but it’s not quite that simple, Lothrop notes.

“While catch-and-release is generally effective at minimizing impacts on fish runs, it’s important to remember that simply reeling in a salmon can be stressful on the fish,” Lothrop said. “There’s going to be some degree of mortality associated with catch-and-release.”

In 2018, the Columbia River was closed to sockeye and summer Chinook, but there were still about 160 sockeye caught and released downstream of the Snake River as part of the steelhead fishery in the early summer.

So even though anglers may be targeting steelhead, some sockeye are still going to be inadvertently caught. And some of those sockeye will die as a result of their encounter. Given the already-high number of fish caught this year exceeds the allowable ESA take at the forecasted run size, it was a risk that fishery managers couldn’t take.

What’s next?

WDFW will continue to monitor the sockeye run, and if the run size is upgraded from the preseason forecast, new ESA impacts may become available. In that case, fishery managers may consider reopening summer fisheries for steelhead and/or summer Chinook. The next meeting to consider a run update is planned for June 29.

Sockeye fishing will remain open for now on the stretch of the Columbia River upstream from the I-182 Bridge, since endangered Snake River sockeye have exited the Columbia by that point, though managers will continue to monitor the run size to see if additional changes might be needed.

Be sure to keep an eye on WDFW’s emergency rules page, or download the Fish Washington app to keep up-to-date on the latest regulations.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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