Archive for Steelhead

The status of steelhead


Every juvenile rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) living in California’s Central Valley has in its genetic makeup the ability to out-migrate to the Pacific Ocean and become a steelhead trout. Historically, this ability has allowed O. mykiss to survive catastrophic events, such as drought. However, these days there is little incentive for O. mykiss to develop into steelhead: the path these fish must navigate to the ocean now teems with introduced predators and offers little good habitat for rearing along the way. Federal and state management practices have also created an environment that favors O. mykiss to stay in their natal streams, maturing into adult rainbow trout instead of steelhead.

Before dams were built, rivers along the West Coast of the United States were entirely influenced by local climate conditions. As snow packs melted in the spring, rivers and streams would swell quickly and provide an ideal opportunity for out-migration. As spring turned into summer, river levels would taper off, eventually leading to just trickling streams in early fall. These natural conditions caused fish to leave their natal rivers and migrate to the ocean to survive. Fish that could adapt to an adult life at sea were heavily favored and could grow much larger in the ocean where food sources were abundant (Wilson 1997). However, predation in the ocean was also much greater, so fish adapted by returning to reproduce in their natal streams, where predation was historically less intensive. In addition to the development of an anadromous life history, O. mykiss retained the ability to live entirely in freshwater. This dual life history pattern of steelhead and rainbow trout makes the species more adaptable to changing environmental conditions (McEwan 2001). In fact, it is typical to have both life history patterns occurring in the same stream, and resident and anadromous parents can produce offspring of both varieties (Courter et al. 2013).

Steelhead populations are now beset by numerous challenges: impassible dams block access to 80-95% of historically available steelhead habitat, alteration of downstream river channels has greatly reduced the rearing habitat of out-migrating juveniles, and many intentionally introduced predator species, like large and smallmouth bass, make the environment even more inhospitable (Lindley et al. 2006). Furthermore, unlike the historically dry conditions in most Central Valley streams during early fall that would prompt O. mykiss to migrate to the ocean, current water management practices include water releases from dams throughout the year, creating an environment that favors juvenile O. mykiss staying in their local streams year round.

California Central Valley steelhead are currently categorized as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) that is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. This DPS includes all anadromous O. mykiss that spawn naturally below dams in Central Valley streams, as well as fish produced by the Feather River Hatchery and Coleman National Fish Hatchery. But the health of the population has seen little improvement since the listing, leading scientists to call for policies and management that better reflect the reality of the steelhead’s genetic and ecological situation. For example, most of the steelhead in the Central Valley now come from hatcheries, and the genetics of the hatchery fish bear the signature of stock from the Eel River, making these fish more closely related to coastal steelhead than to their rainbow trout counterparts in the Central Valley above the dams (Nielsen et al. 2005). It might make more sense to include populations of above-dam rainbow trout in the steelhead DPS, since these fish possess perhaps the truest remaining Central Valley steelhead genetics. Despite modifications to the environment that favor a resident life history, Central Valley steelhead have still managed to survive – but it is important to recognize the current steelhead population is simply not the same as it was historically.

This post featured in our weekly e-newsletter, the Fish Report. You can subscribe to the Fish Report here.

Tough choices in dry conditions

Steelhead smolt

In times of extreme conditions, such as the current state of water scarcity in California, some sacrifices and tradeoffs inevitably have to be made. For example, the recent choice to reduce river flows in northern California is a necessary first step toward water conservation. However, the timing of the flow reductions resulted in sacrificing fall-run Chinook salmon, and an important fishing industry, in favor of winter-run Chinook salmon and steelhead, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

On the Sacramento River, endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, which typically spawn in May and June, arrived late last year and laid eggs in August instead. For the next three months, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was required to maintain water levels in the river for this endangered species to prevent their eggs from drying out before hatching. Unfortunately, when necessary cuts to flows from Shasta Dam were finally made in November, fall-run Chinook had already returned to the river and laid their own eggs. Waiting to decrease the flows left many fall-run Chinook salmon high and dry, and an estimated 20-40 percent of fall-run Chinook eggs may have been lost as water levels dropped.

Drought concerns at Folsom Lake have forced a similar situation on the American River, where flows are now at their lowest level since 1993. With no rain in sight, water cuts began this month, and fall-run Chinook salmon again took the hit in order to avoid jeopardizing protected steelhead. In this case, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wanted to reduce flows before the threatened steelhead returned to spawn, rather than risk dewatering their redds later. However, the timing meant an estimated 10 to 15 percent of unlucky fall-run Chinook redds dried out before the salmon emerged from the gravel. These and similar losses will surely have negative consequences for future fall-run populations, although their full extent remains to be seen.

It’s not easy making the decision on what to sacrifice during a crisis, but in some cases the decision has already been made. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is designed to protect and recover imperiled species in the hopes that one day they can become delisted. In some cases, delisting occurs when the protection of the species has allowed for the recovery of its populations. However, sometimes research can identify reasons why the species should not have been listed in the first place. In an article recently published in the California Waterblog, Peter Moyle posed the question, “Are Central Valley steelhead really ‘threatened’?” In order to answer that question, it is important to determine if Central Valley steelhead genetics are still present in the Central Valley, and determine what factors produce anadromy in the species (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

Historically, some hatcheries spawned steelhead from the Eel and Klamath Rivers, and today, steelhead genetics in the Central Valley exhibit a closer resemblance to northern California coastal steelhead than their landlocked relatives behind dams in the Central Valley. It was also once thought that anadromy was strictly a genetic trait, but studies have shown otherwise: not all offspring from a steelhead necessarily display anadromous traits, while offspring from resident rainbow trout can exhibit anadromous behavior (Weigel et al. 2013). From a genetics standpoint, it can be argued that Central Valley steelhead have been extirpated from the Central Valley, although it could also be argued that they exist as O. mykiss exhibiting the life strategy of residency rather than anadromy. The nebulous status of steelhead complicates the decision of whether they ought to be prioritized over fall-run Chinook.

It is likely that even tougher decisions will need to be made as the drought persists. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water, and it is likely that land will be fallowed this year and farmers will be subsidized, leading to a loss of farming revenue. Water prices are sure to rise, as society is asked to cut back and find ways to conserve. During a crisis, environmental protections often take a back seat to social and economic concerns, and unfortunately this may continue until the skies open up again.

This post featured in our weekly e-newsletter, the Fish Report. You can subscribe to the Fish Report here.


Going coastal

Casper Creek PIT tag antenna

When embarking on a new project, it’s often wise to learn from the experience of others. That’s why FISHBIO staff recently headed north among the trees of Mendocino County for insights on how to monitor fish in coastal streams. Salmon and steelhead populations living in California’s coastal streams are listed under the California and Federal Endangered Species Acts, and their populations therefore require extensive monitoring and restoration efforts. One approach is life cycle monitoring, which is the combined process of counting juvenile fish traveling downstream and adults traveling upstream on the same river.

FISHBIO is currently working to create a decision-making tool that can be used to develop salmonid life cycle monitoring on Scott Creek in Santa Cruz County. This resource will help scientists identify the best type of life cycle monitoring equipment to use for a particular habitat, based on environmental characteristics such as depth, flow, and substrate. To inform our research, we paid a visit to a team from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in Mendocino, who have monitored coho salmon and steelhead in northern coastal streams for many years. The researchers have set up three life cycle monitoring stations at Pudding Creek, the south fork of the Noyo River, and Caspar Creek. Their methods include rotary screw traps and fyke traps to monitor juveniles, and fish weirs and PIT tag antennas to track adults (Gallagher and Wright 2012).

One of the interesting things we learned is that researchers have more flexibility on a stream that is not considered a navigable waterway. The scientists can set up panels to divert most of the river into their rotary screw traps, without having to worry about blocking kayakers or rafters. This tactic greatly increases the traps’ efficiency, resulting in more captured fish to study. The team implants PIT tags into nearly all of the out-migrating juveniles, which allows them to gather valuable information about the fish that return as adults. For instance, the researchers have found that adult salmonids don’t tend to stray among the three coastal streams, even though their mouths are located within 10 miles of each other. Although the adult fish presumably mix in the ocean, they reliably return to the streams where they were born. We also benefited from talking to the CDFW team about their experiences operating equipment in an environment very similar to Scott Creek. They face the challenges of a flashy system that responds quickly to heavy rain, and also cope with a mess of equipment-clogging debris from the dense tree canopy. Check out this video for more information on CDFW’s life cycle monitoring on coastal streams.

In need of a fish ladder facelift

Iron Canyon fish ladder Many Chico residents, hoping to escape the intense summer heat of the California Central Valley, often retreat to the cool waters of Big Chico Creek in Bidwell Park. What many people don’t know, however, is that Big Chico Creek is also an important migration route for spring-run salmon and steelhead. Upstream from the popular swimming spot known as Salmon Hole lies Big Chico Creek’s Iron Canyon fish ladder. The fish ladder was built in 1958 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game), with assistance from the State Division of Forestry, to help salmon and steelhead reach their spawning grounds during low-to-moderate flows.

Located deep in a rugged canyon, the fish ladder consists of seventeen concrete weirs that have seen better days. The structure’s performance has declined in recent years due to degradation. Sections of the ladder are currently blown out or worn down to exposed rebar. The damage has made fish passage at low flows extremely difficult, if not impossible. According to a report released by the California Department of Water Resources, the upper portion of fish ladder is not passable at low flows because water simply does not flow into it. Declining salmon and steelhead populations in the creek have prompted increased efforts to restore the Iron Canyon fish ladder. Proponents for rehabilitation, such the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, claim the structure is critical for preserving and enhancing the spring-run salmon population, and cite the need for improving fish passage over a greater range of flows.

California public officials responded to public pressure and began plans to repair the weirs starting in June 2013.  However, the project has now been postponed until at least 2014 due to budgetary shortfalls. Last week, the Chico Enterprise Record reported that the project is still $400,000 short of its $2.2 million estimated cost. In addition, there is concern that construction activities could disturb fish and that water flows might not be low enough to begin rehabilitation work. State and federal agencies also do not consider the project a priority, the article reports. Perhaps in 2014, state agencies will gather the funding and motivation to move forward with the restoration. Until then, it’s up to community members to encourage action to help restore Big Chico Creek’s salmon and steelhead populations.

Iron Canyon fish ladder

Salmon returning to restored watershed

The Mendocino Beacon
April 11, 2013

In October 2011, I reported on a multi-agency clean-up at Glenbrook Gulch in Big River where there was environmental damage due to an illegal marijuana grow.

State Parks had received grants from California Department of Fish and Game and NOAA Fisheries to remove a logging haul road and dam and restore the steelhead and coho salmon run in the watershed. State Parks worked with California Geologic Survey and the California Conservation Corps to restore the habitat for fish. The discovery of the eradicated 10-acre illegal grow, which included four ponds that diverted water from the gulch and pollution from illegal fertilizers, compounded the clean-up project.

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Tribes work to maximize Columbia River Basin steelhead

OPB News
March 28, 2013

Steelhead in the Columbia River Basin are threatened. Current populations have dwindled to a fraction of the historic numbers a century ago. That has led two Northwest Indian Tribes to try something new to help this struggling fish survive.

Nez Perce tribal fishery employees say they have the best job in the world. But it’s definitely not for everyone. Winter steelhead return to the large Dworshak National Fish Hatchery near Orofino in February. Early mornings at the fishery it’s still cold, almost freezing.

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Thousands of steelhead begin spring migration – via truck

March 26, 2013

Around 1.8 million juvenile rainbow trout — known as steelhead when they migrate to the sea — will begin their journey to the Pacific Ocean this week. That’s because Idaho Power crews will be trucking them to various rivers in Idaho.

The fish, known as smolt, are 8 to 9-inches long, and have been raised in the Niagara Springs Hatchery south of Wendell.

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Judge to rule on stopping salmon release by Sandy Hatchery

The Oregonian
March 17, 2013

A small but feisty fish conservation group is asking a federal judge Wednesday to take the unprecedented action of stopping Oregon’s seasonal release of juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Sandy River.

The Oregon City-based Native Fish Society filed suit against Oregon fishery officials and the National Marine Fisheries Service two years ago, contending releases from the Sandy Hatchery harms threatened salmon and steelhead.

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Biologist says Umatilla dam work has helped fish

The Daily News
March 12, 2013

Research on the Umatilla River in northeast Oregon shows fixing irrigation dams has allowed more of the protected steelhead and salmon to pass through.

The East Oregonian says biologist Craig Contor of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation recently delivered a report on the work.

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Nez Perce Tribal biologists using new method to combat declining steelhead

March 6, 2013

The steelhead population is of concern to many in the region, including local tribal biologists.

Once a year, biologists, scientists and crew members of the Nez Perce Tribe come to the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery to bring life back into the river.

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