For the first time in several decades, not a single Winter Steelhead returned to the North Fork Alsea hatchery in December. As of January 29th, less than 300 have returned. The 20 year average for January returns is 936. The late start and low returns are startling.
Ty Wyatt is a fishing guide and director of the Alsea Sportsman’s Association. He responded to the early hatchery return data by predicting this year’s run as “dismal at best” and possibly the “single worst return of Alsea Winter steelhead ever.” The drop in return numbers is based on a lot of different factors: weather patterns, water levels, number of smolts (young salmon) released, predation and harvest all affect how many fish actually return to the hatchery.
The typical question of “How Many?” is getting replaced by “Why so few?” Weather patterns have likely affected this year’s returns as Oregon endured its fourth driest year on record in 2013. With only one significant rainfall in January and a continuation of the dry weather trend, it is possible that many of the fish could be holding in lower parts of the river waiting for more rain to push upriver.
Fish holding in deeper water could be attributed to a hatchery program designed to increase the success of anglers by planting smolts downstream rather than releasing them directly from the hatchery. The intention is for these fish to imprint on the lower river and linger in this area longer upon returning as adults. Last year marked the first returns from this program, but the overall they were still below average.
While recent rains have brought more fish to the hatchery, the numbers are still very low. Historical data shows February returns as usually only slightly higher, roughly equal or lower than January’s numbers. Returns of wild steelhead on the Alsea have been low for the past few years as well, and while fish will continue to make their way back to the hatchery during March and into April, predictions for a record low year of hatchery steelhead seem to be unavoidably on track for fulfillment.
On a positive note, the lowest return numbers in the past 13 years were followed by the highest return numbers the following year. Also, during extreme low water years, steelhead may not even enter the river choosing instead to remain at sea until the next year when better conditions may favor their reproductive success. So it is to be hoped we will have better luck next year. Still the current numbers are troubling and portend catastrophe down the line.
by Randall Bonner