ODFW provides little insight into this year’s fishing season

By Kristy Tallman

Last week we spoke to Nick Gilbo, Fish and Wildlife Technician, from the South Santiam Fish Hatchery in hopes of gaining some insight on this year’s fishing. Unfortunately we were left with more questions than answers when it comes to the drawdown effects and how they will impact this year’s season as well as how the overall effects of the drawdown are impacting the fish as a whole.
Many of our questions were referred to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Gilbo explained he wished he had more answers to some of the questions presented. “This is new to us, new to Oregon,” he said. “It’s never been done before so everything is a wait and see.”
In speaking with Beth Quillian from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife we were able to gain a little more knowledge but overall it appears all our questions are a hurry up and wait game.
Many were wondering if the number of salmon coming up the river this year are in comparison to numbers seen before the drawdown. Quillian stated there are a number of factors that determine the return numbers each year.
“The number of returning fish fluctuates annually depending on a number of factors, including the strength of the parent year class, the environmental conditions during their juvenile period in freshwater, and the ocean conditions. It would take many years to determine whether drawdowns and associated turbidity have an impact on adult migration. Additionally, the drawdowns are occurring outside the primary window for returning spring Chinook and winter steelhead.”
Quillian explained that the root problem in the Willamette is the dams are a significant disruption to the salmon’s environment and their ability to reach their spawning and rearing habitats without the help of the fish collectors. She explained the salmon will not recover without the ability to move up and down past the dams where drawdowns are occurring. She believes the drawdowns are a way to create an environment friendly for the fish returns.

Anglers set out for a fishing attempt the day after thousands of dead juvenile Kokanee were found floating from the drawdown. Photo by Sarah Brown

According to Quillian the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has the responsibility for managing and reporting on the drawdown. ODFW’s role is centered around working with partners, including USACE, to promote recovery. She stated the ODFW has asked and the USACE has agreed to work more closely with the state in the future to minimize the negative impacts that were observed this year.
She says the drawdowns were being conducted to benefit the recovery of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed salmon and steelhead which have been in decline for decades.” In order to recover the populations it will be necessary to provide downstream juvenile fish passage in some form as the vast majority of quality habitat is above the dams.”
Quillian stated the ODFW continues to advocate for the simplest fish passage solutions that meet human health and safety needs for communities below the dams, are effective for fish survival and are the most cost effective for the USACE to implement.
We also found there was a parasite problem at the hatchery that has since been resolved. According to Quillian parasites are a part of the natural life of a fish in an aquatic environment. The hatchery setting does not represent what is occurring in the wild because the densities and living conditions are not the same between the two environments.
“Fish that aren’t stressed can usually handle normal parasitic loads in their environment,” she stated. “We do not routinely examine fish that exist outside the hatchery system, so this is not something the ODFW is monitoring at the time.”
However Quillian said if the fish are experiencing an event that causes a mortality event, they would examine the fish during that time.
Quillian says the ODFW recommends that any fish caught in the waters of Oregon are handled and prepared according to Oregon Health Authority’s food and safety guidelines, including thoroughly cooking all fish before consumption. She stated that freezing can also play a part in killing some parasites that may be present in the fish prior to cooking.
It was believed by Gilbo the fish parasites had occurred due to the silt that was produced during the drawdown process. This silt flowed into the hatchery and created an environment conducive to the parasites.
According to Quillian, the USACE controls the monitoring of Green Peter and Lookout Point dams and reservoirs. They are monitoring the water quality in the reservoirs to include the silt folks have been inquiring of. The USACE has informed the ODFW the water downstream of these dams is expected to improve as the reservoir elevations are increased.
Experiences at other sites (including Fall Creek and Cougar reservoirs in the Middle Fork Willamette and McKenzie basins) showed that sediment decreased over time, indicating that impacts will lessen in the Green Peter and Lookout Point reservoirs each year as the sediment is flushed.
Quillian says dam removal is not being considered in the Willamette, but when thinking about the impacts of sediment release during the drawdowns, it can be informative to look at instances where dams have been removed and large amounts of sediment have been released to see what impact it had on fish populations. She used Elwha, Sandy and Rogue dams as an example.
“In all these cases,” stated Quillian, “we have seen significant long-term benefits to native fish populations and improved functioning of the river system that was previously starved by sediment/gravel inputs.”
The ODFW does not anticipate any long term negative impacts on the fisheries in the reservoirs and are working with the USACE to minimize impacts, if any.
Quillian says the fish will out-migrate to the ocean where they will spend 2-4 years before returning. Given this cycle it will take some time to understand the long term effects on the population of fish.
“The goal was to provide a pathway for juvenile salmon to migrate to the ocean during the drawdown period. The USACE will need to monitor juvenile outmigration and subsequent adult returns in several years to determine if it worked as intended.”
She says it is absolutely important to learn from this drawdown and adapt in the future to reduce/avoid negative impacts. “The root cause of the issue is that these federal dams are threatening the existence of salmon and steelhead in the Willamette, “ she continued. “The federal government should take a holistic approach to recovering these species that takes account of the impacts these or other measures have on communities.
“Without providing fish the ability to move up and down past these dams they will not recover and we will not realize the significant social, cultural and economic benefits they bring.” Stating further, “The ODFW will continue to advocate a more holistic approach rather than focusing just on the dams.”
When asking if the redd population was affected by the drawdown and consequential silt that followed, “It will take time to gather information on any impacts to the fish populations. We currently don’t know about impacts to redds but assume it isn’t large because the sediment appears to have been fine rather than coarse and was likely moved downstream.”
The ODFW is currently planning to conduct an e-shocking survey between Wiley Park and Pleasant Valley Boat Ramp this spring to check on the presence of spring Chinook young-of-the-year.
As far as other species of fish that are found in the area such as the sunfish, bass, chub and whitefish, it will be up to the USACE to monitor and report all fish populations. To date no reports have been given.
In asking if the ODFW believes the whole drawdown process has been worthwhile to the wildlife and environment, they say it is too early to tell if this process has had a beneficial effect on listed salmonids and they won’t know for several years if the drawdown was successful in its intended purpose.
The ODFW says in regards to this year’s fishing season, “It will take time to gather information on impacts to the fish populations including the Kokanee. Provided that all factors are similar to previous years in Green Peter Reservoir, the catchable trout fishery should remain the same.”
We’re quickly reminded that Gilbo told us nearly the same thing, informing anglers there will be no answers until the seasons begin and the fishing begins.
“They’re going to have to find out,” he said. “You’re going to have to wait for Green Peter to fill back up, and then clear up so people can go fishing and they’re going to be the ones that find out in a hurry.
“If they want to go back to their favorite spots, yea they’re the ones who’s going to find out and let the rest of us know.”
Coming full circle we seem to find ourselves mostly at a standstill when it comes to the fate of this year’s fishing seasons and the fish populations in the area. Hopefully by spring, the USACE will start to produce facts and figures that can be shared with the public. Until then it leaves anglers as the only arbitrators of information once the season begins.