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Umpqua History and Wild Steelhead Recovery Plan

Posted by Mark Friday, November 19, 2010

The information and thoughts below were compiled and generously shared by Bill McMillan. Thanks Bill!

Thanks also goes to my buddy Todd H. for his ongoing talks with Bill and in getting this information to me.

Some excellent information and thoughts on historical Umpqua runs and their demise. Also, some great ideas for recovery by one of the greatest wild fish advocates alive today. Bill's knowledge and longtime study of wild steelhead behavior and the perils they face is second to none. Bill's plan/idea of fading out the hatchery fish is the best thing I have heard on the subject. It makes total sense and is very workable.Obviously,there are other plans out there but to see this one in writing was really cool. You never can get a straight scoop on what the State or Feds are thinking

I am interested in keeping the wild fish topic at the forefront of what I do here.As we saw with the whole guide interview thing that went viral,the hatchery/wild fish issue is a touchy and complex one and it is not an easy overnight fix. My hope here is to keep some conversation and open dialogue going to try and continue to make the best decisions for the river and fish in the future. Hopefully, articles like this will help stir some emotion in people and get them to become involved in the process of getting even a small percent of our historic numbers back.

Thanks for reading and get out there and support a wild fish cause that interests you.  Native Fish Society is a good place to start.

Fascinating and mind boggling to think of the numbers of fish that use to enter the Umpqua drainage!  Check this article by Bill out:

Umpqua River Wild Steelhead – Examining their History and a Graduated Action Plan for their Recovery

Historical overview:

Fishery managers in Oregon frequently site the beginning of available history for Umpqua River steelhead as the mid 1940s with Winchester Dam counts.  However, commercial catch data go back at least to 1923.  To ignore earlier data, especially that of a well documented source from the State of Oregon itself, leads to a prevalent fishery management condition called “the shifting baseline syndrome” by Daniel Pauly in 1995.  Pauly indicates it is a worldwide fishery management phenomenon that has led to continuously declining fisheries on a global scale.    

Listed below (on the next page) are the Umpqua historic steelhead commercial catch data going back to 1923 from Cleaver 1951 (Fisheries Statistics of Oregon).  The peak catch was 1928 with 185,455 lbs, if divided by 8 lbs it equals 23,182 steelhead.  This includes both summer and winter run steelhead for the Umpqua, and although 8.6 lbs was the average size of winter-run steelhead commercially caught at Tillamook Bay in 1942 (Sumner 1945), it was indicated summer-run steelhead are typically somewhat smaller.  Between 1923 and 1928, winter-run steelhead outnumbered summer-run steelhead.  By that relatively late date of historical settlement in Oregon, it can be assumed considerable habitat degradation had previously occurred on the Umpqua by then as well as agricultural and subsistence use of steelhead earlier in the 1800s.  Even in Zane Grey's time it was noted that dynamiting of steelhead occurred.  It certainly is not out of consideration that the Umpqua may have had 100,000 steelhead or more in the latter 1800s.  A run-size of 50,000-60,000 steelhead seems an appropriate ballpark estimate for 1928 considering a sport fishery had to be added to it by then and what were apparently sometimes devastating poaching activities.  1923, 1925, and 1926 were not much lower in commercial steelhead catch.  1928 was the last year that included Jan, Feb, & Mar harvest of the following year until 1947 (the notes at bottom of the data indicate those months were included in the previous year fishery -- so Jan, Feb, Mar of 1929 were included in the 1928 catch data, and so forth).  

By 1940 the commercial catch was down to 9,395 lbs, or 1,174 steelhead commercially caught at 8 lbs per steelhead (not counting the sport fishery), although it did not include the once large winter month catches of Jan, Feb, and Mar.  It indicates in notes below the table that the salmon fishery was closed in 1946 and the steelhead catch began to go up again thereafter until the data ends in early 1948 with more winter steelhead again included in the catch (but not again approaching the abundance of the 1920’s). Apparently after closure of the salmon fishery, another year or two was provided to commercially increase catch of steelhead to make up the lost commercial opportunity?

Regarding Umpqua commercial steelhead catch, I completely forgot that several years ago I copied off the data from an even earlier source than the 1928 catch of 23,000 provided in Cleaver 1951.  Cobb (1921) provided the 1919 catch as packed in cases at the local cannery there at the time.  I had to compute cases packed into lbs, adjust the weight for the amount of waste that occurs in canning (typically considered about 50% for chinook, but sometimes considered more for smaller fish like sockeye and steelhead with Jim Myers of NOAA Fisheries suggesting it could be as high as 70% waste via personal communication with him at the time), and then divide that by the average weight of steelhead caught (I used a range of 7-9 lbs at the time not knowing if summer or winter run fish, but I now know it was both from the more recent data so 8 lbs would likely be the best weight).  Anyway, I have attached the information as I initially computed it several years back.  As might be anticipated, the further one goes back in time the greater the numbers typically are.  In 1919, the range of numbers was from 29,000 to 62,000 steelhead caught in the commercial fishery.  This does not include sport catch or poaching ... or Indian subsistence catch and settler subsistence catch that may have still occurred at that earlier date.  If catch was 50% of the run-size, then the run-size was 58,000-124,000 steelhead that year.  If one takes into account sport, poaching, and subsistence fisheries that may have also occurred it could mean a run-size of as much as 200,000 steelhead.  Predictably, if one had data back into the mid to latter 1800s, it would undoubtedly have shown an even greater number of steelhead.  The Umpqua had quite astonishing steelhead productivity, that is for sure.

From Cobb (1921), regarding the number of cases of steelhead packed in 1919 on the Umpqua River (a case = 48 1-pound cans [and assumed 48 half-pound cans]):

½-pound flat ………. 3,586 cases  =  86,064 lbs
1-pound flat ……….. 116 cases     =  5,568 lbs
1-pound tall ……….. 791 cases     =  37,968 lbs

Total …………………………..    =  129,600 lbs

If canning waste = 50%, a total of 259,200 lbs of steelhead were caught prior to canning.  If each Umpqua steelhead weighed 7 lbs (mixed summer- and winter-run), it would mean that 37,029 steelhead were caught in 1919 during the commercial fishery.  If it was only a winter-run catch the average may have been 9 lbs per steelhead meaning that 28,800 steelhead were caught in 1919.

If canning waste = 70%, a total of 432,000 lbs of steelhead were caught prior to canning.  If each Umpqua steelhead weighed 7 lbs, it would mean that 61,714 steelhead were caught in 1919 during the commercial fishery.  If each steelhead averaged 9 lbs, it would mean that 48,000 steelhead were caught in the 1919 commercial fishery.

These figures do not include sport catch and subsistence catch.

If commercial harvest was 50% of the run-size in 1919, then 74,058-123,428 mixed summer and winter steelhead were destined for the Umpqua River that year.  If the catch was all in winter/spring, then 57,600-98,000 winter-run steelhead were destined for the Umpqua that year.

If commercial harvest was 30% of the run-size in 1919 to account for the sport fishery and subsistence fisheries, then 123,430-205,713 mixed summer and winter steelhead were destined for the Umpqua River.  If the catch was all in winter/spring, then 96,000-160,000 winter-run steelhead were destined for the Umpqua that year.


Cobb, J.N. 1921. Pacific Salmon Fisheries. Third Edition. Appendix I to the report of the U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries for 1921. Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 902. Washington, DC. 268 pp.

A much earlier Umpqua steelhead historical account regarding abundance and size of steelhead during mid-autumn was provided by David Douglas, naturalist the Douglas fir is named after.  Between October 17-23, 1826, Douglas indicated that the Indians on the
Umpqua brought his party a number of fine "salmon-trout of 15-25 pounds”(Douglas
1914). On October 21st of that same year he described a large catch of Umpqua "salmon-trout" that an Indian chief and his son provided.  These fish were two and a half feet to three feet in length and ten to twenty-five inches round (presumably girth) – in other words, 30"-36" long.  If a 36" fish had a girth of 25" it would indeed be a 25 pound range steelhead.  The interesting timing of this run was October, either a late summer-run or early winter-run, with steelhead apparently abundant at that time in 1826.  Historically the Washougal River of the lower Columbia basin had a similar October run of large wild steelhead that remained until the mid 1970s -- a river not otherwise noted for large wild steelhead as documented in my own fishing records.  Also in Puget Sound in the mid-1800s there are descriptions of steelhead building up at the river mouths in mid-autumn (Suckley 1860), rivers not known to have large summer-runs of steelhead today, nor early winter-runs.

Considerations regarding an action plan for Umpqua wild steelhead recovery:

Given the present emphasis by ODFW on continuing hatchery steelhead programs in the Umpqua basin, one approach could be to have a phased plan to achieve wild steelhead recovery through a more immediate short-term plan that would initiate reduced levels of hatchery releases contained below designated “wild steelhead reserves.” This could be en route to a longer term goal of increasing diminishment of hatchery steelhead releases with eventual basin-wide hatchery elimination and entire watershed designation as a “wild salmon and steelhead reserve.”  

1) Set a long-term goal to sequentially reduce the numbers of both salmon and steelhead planted with eventual hatchery elimination and an eventual Umpqua basin designation as a “wild salmon & steelhead reserve.”

Regarding the North Umpqua:  as fly fishing water, most fly fishers at least mouth the belief that wild fish are their primary interest.  If so, why plant hatchery steelhead into water where fly fishermen typically express most interest in wild fish?   

Related to the above, the North Umpqua is the ideal place to set up the concept of a more immediate "wild steelhead recovery area."  Although there may have been hatchery introgression due to the previous summer-run planting history, there are areas with long histories of hatchery releases where wild populations still retain distinctively different DNA.  It is a mixed bag.  I am not aware what the North Umpqua summer-run genetics show.  Nevertheless, there is only one way to recover traits that can increasingly adapt to the wild (if the genetics have been altered) and that is to quit continually introducing the hatchery traits for domestication with resulting low survival in the wild.  Continuous releases of hatchery fish never allow effective traits for survival in the wild to evolve due to the continuous interaction of hatchery with wild fish that never ceases -- year after year of overlaying domesticated genetics on wild genetics, and/or competition between wild and hatchery fish at virtually all life history stages.  

When the ice sheet that covered Puget Sound receded after the last Ice Age, it was only stray steelhead and salmon from elsewhere that came to effectively recolonize it.  Recolonization depends on allowing natural adaptation to work.  Stray entering fish have a broad mix of genetic characteristics, and like hatchery fish many will be ill adapted, but out of the straying genetic mix the prevalent conditions of an area will eventually select for those traits that are best adapted.  (If you put gravel on screens of differing coarseness, what comes out the bottom will be composed of different average size material than what was placed on top -- essentially demonstrating how straying, adaptation, and evolution work with habitat being the selective screen.)  This has been shown to occur much more rapidly than folks in the past have considered.  It apparently takes from 5-25 years for salmon/steelhead recolonization to occur to self-sustaining population numbers (if continuous hatchery releases do not confuse the issue), with some species doing it faster than others.  Once the right genetics find the right habitat, an adapted population of fish begins to develop with higher survival than the rest.  As their productivity increases, they rapidly outnumber the strays with ill adapted traits.  But in the case of hatcheries, the ill adapted traits straying into the wild are so high in numbers that they continue to overwhelm the adapted traits year after year ... that is, until the large annual numbers of hatchery fish co-mingling with the wild ceases to occur, or is minimized down to the natural straying rate of about 5%. 

The recolonization of pink salmon that were eliminated from the upper Fraser River by the Hells Gate slide in 1913-14 era came to recolonize once the slide area was provided effective passage for pink salmon in the latter 1940s to early 1950s (sockeye salmon were not entirely eliminated due to having longer life histories than pinks and because the slide became passable for them as stronger upriver migrators than pinks within 3 years after the slide).  It took about 20-25 years for pink salmon to reestablish sustained populations in the upper Fraser with about 2 million pinks now occurring there.  Although still not as broadly dispersed as before Hells Gate, in time it is thought they will eventually do so when the strays with the right mix of life history characteristics eventually reach those areas. 

Nature is a continual process of selecting for those life history characteristics that work for a particular habitat niche. 

2) In the short-term, be continuously critical of hatchery programs and argue for their elimination, but there needs to be the necessary patience and tenacity that it can sometimes take decades to see progress (realizing we are now more rapidly running out of decades as a result of global warming with the pressing need for wild fish to make effective adaptations). 

As a result, consistently argue that at a minimum limit hatchery releases to those areas of a basin where they will do the least harm -- essentially meaning as low in the basin as possible and still provide some minimal terminal area for harvest opportunity hatcheries are meant to provide.  Over and over again we have done just the opposite by putting hatchery programs in upper basin areas and spreading harvest for them out over broad basin areas rather than in confined terminal areas. 

To achieve the above, advocate for immediate reduction in the numbers of hatchery fish released to minimize their interactions with wild fish, and to only release them below the forks with designation of both the North Umpqua and South Umpqua as wild recovery reserves.  Incorporated into that should be weirs that can be used to effectively monitor wild escapement and to eliminate hatchery fish from entry to the reserves.  

One good example of where this has occurred is Asotin Creek in Washington where a wild steelhead reserve has been designated since the 1990s with weir use beginning in 2005 that denies hatchery entry beyond it.  The Elwha River weir is now also operating (biggest river thus far on the West Coast of the Lower 48 with a weir) and is providing before dam data:  It will eventually provide a means to monitor the rate of salmon/steelhead recolonization to the upper basin.  It also provides the opportunity to select out hatchery fish from entry to Olympic National Park if that decision comes to be made (as would be anticipated from National Park consistency of management elsewhere).

It is apparent that the Umpqua basin once provided large numbers of wild steelhead.  Much of the basin can still do so -- but only if wild steelhead productivity is not continuously compromised by a steady flow of hatchery genetics for domestication that drags wild fish down with them during spawning interactions and perpetually reduced survival.  And beyond genetics there is the continual competitive presence of hatchery fish at all life history levels in both fresh and saltwater environments. 

It makes absolutely no sense to invest large sums of money into habitat recovery projects and habitat purchases only to continue to allow hatchery fish entry that denies the ability for that habitat to work with high natural productivity.  We spend millions on one hand to create or preserve productive habitat, and we spend millions on the other hand on hatcheries that insure the former will not effectively function due to hatchery fish entry.  End progress -- zero -- and at great cost to the public. 

                                                                                    Bill McMillan, Nov. 17, 2010


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Bill provides a great analysis of historic Umpqua populations. ODFW-Roseburg insists on using 1940's data as the baseline. A similar analysis (of Winchester catch data) reaching similar conclusions was done several years ago by Lee Spencer, and provided to ODFW, to help inform dialogue concerning "healthy" numbers of summer fish and "acceptable" levels of mortality in a wild-kill fishery. ODFW ignored it. ODFW-Roseburg prefers to use a run estimate from the 1940s, which is considerably lower, because setting the bar artificially low makes their job easier. This sort of historic information must become part of the dialogue in setting escapement targets on the Umpqua system

    Steve P.

  3. Mark Says:
  4. Thanks Steve

  5. Mark:
    Thanks for posting Bill's article and the graphs he provided. It is truly amazing to realize what the North Umpqua produced in the past. I can only imagine what things would be like if hatchery fish were removed from the system and the native steelhead were allowed to recover without all the hatchery fish dragging them down. It's seems to be be getting harder and harder to justify the ecomonic feasibilty of hatcheries. Seems with the economy the way it is, cutting funds for hatcheries would be a good way to save the government some money and allocate it elsewhere.


  6. beau purvis Says:
  7. Thanks for the info,everyone. I believe Bill is and always has been on the right track. Nature,if given a chance, will do a much better job than the fish feedlot crowd.The key is getting the feedlots out of business!!

  8. Mark Says:
  9. You said it Beau!


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