Why Are Salmon And Steelhead Struggling To Get Home To Idaho?

Aug 18, 2017

Many of the fish that return to Idaho from the Pacific Ocean are struggling. Idaho Fish and Game has called this year’s salmon fishing “disappointing.” And the Department just closed steelhead fishing statewide except for catch-and-release. So we asked why the fish aren’t coming home.

The fish face all kinds of obstacles during their two 900-mile journeys -- first out to the ocean, then two years later, back to Idaho. They have to fight their way past multiple dams and predators like sea lions just to make those trips.

Through Monday, about 400 steelhead had crossed the Lower Granite Dam on their way back to Idaho. The 10-year average is about 6,000. Sockeye Salmon numbers are also down, with Fish and Game hoping another 150 fish join the two that have made it to Stanley so far.

But Roger Phillips with Fish and Game says he can’t pin the blame for this bad year on just a single issue.

“Pointing to one thing and saying this is the problem usually isn’t correct when it comes to these salmon and steelhead,” Phillips says.

According to Phillps, a lot of factors lined up against the fish this year.

In 2015, out-migration conditions were difficult. It was a low-water year, which made it tough on the small fish heading from Idaho to the ocean. Early hot weather didn’t help, making river conditions hazardous to the fish who were leaving. And those that made it to the Pacific ran into unusually warm water where the fish come out of the Columbia River.

“When you turn them loose and then two years later hope that they come back, there’s just a lot of things that can change that we have no control over, that we can’t really predict,” says Phillips.

Those things include Copepods, tiny crustaceans that Salmon feed on. Because of the warm ocean water, not enough of the right kind of copepods were available for the fish to eat and that was just one more strike against them.

But there is some good news. The recent wet winter sent a lot of cold water into the Pacific, breaking up the unusually warm water there. And fall Chinook salmon runs are doing well, with 27,000 fish expected to return, giving anglers something to aim for.

And as for the low runs of steelhead and salmon?

“So even in a low year like this, we think we’re going to have enough adults to replenish our hatcheries,” Phillips says.

Phillips says he remains hopeful that more fish will make it back to Idaho in the next few years.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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