Bob Margulis of the Wild Steelhead Coalition just passed along a note from someone that I thought might be of interest to those in the anadromous world regarding steelhead in the Columbia Basin in particular the Yakima River region:
The 6,000 steelhead returning to the Yakima has to be put into the perspective that most of the present production is coming out of Satus Creek and Toppenish Creek. There remains an immense amount of fine habitat in the Yakima outside those two streams. The Naches River alone should be having returns of over 6,000 steelhead, Satus and Toppenish each 2,000 and the upper mainstem Yakima and many of its tributaries such as Big Creek, Cabin Creek, Teanaway River, and many others should have at least another 6,000-10,000 … even under present conditions. Given the good passage conditions in the Columbia in recent years and the good overall ocean conditions, the Yakima should be having wild steelhead returns of 15,000-20,000.
During the early to mid 1980s when the then NW Power Planning Council (now NW Power and Conservation Council) began to have discussions about making the Yakima the poster child for Columbia Basin recovery, it was estimated that the Yakima Basin was second only to the Snake Basin in numbers of returning salmon and steelhead. It was estimated that it’s historic returns were 600,000 combined total with 100,000 of those being steelhead.
However, our present work on the Columbia using amount of available gravel as found in the 1930s to estimate salmon returns suggest that there was sufficient gravel available for about 1.5-2 million spring Chinook alone in the Yakima basin … and that was the most conservative estimate. If we had used what is a more probable redd area per spawning pair of Chinook it would have been more on the order of 3-5 million. We have not completed our mathematical runs per gravel available for all the species, but the Yakima had large runs of coho, steelhead, fall Chinook, and sockeye — the latter having 3 large lakes available (Kachess, Keechelus, and Cle Elum) and one smaller lake (Bumping). In 1916 there was a count made of the number of salmonid juveniles killed in one irrigation field watering of some 200 acres near Yakima. From that count expanded to the total irrigation acreage at the time, it was computed that about 4.5 million outmigrating smolts were being killed with each watering in the Yakima basin. Subsequently in the 1920s it was better determined how many waterings occurred per year and the final estimate was that some 20 million outmigrating salmonids were annually killed via diversion onto irrigation fields where they died. This did not include how many juveniles were killed in the irrigation canals each year when annually dewatered each fall. It was only a count of those that went out onto the fields being irrigated when diverted from the canals. This was long after the sockeye runs had already been wiped out in the very early 1900s by construction of dams at the outlets of each of the lakes already mentioned that had no passage systems. And salmon runs overall were known to have severely declined in the Columbia basin from 1883 onward. By the 1916-1920 period of time salmon numbers (adult and juvenile) were a fraction of that when Lewis and Clark Expedition occurred.
Just for a couple comparative examples, Osoyoos Lake on the upper Okanagan this year will have a run-size of wild sockeye of about 450,000 (515,000+ have thus far passed Bonneville most of which are destined there). That is only one lake and Osoyoos is still in recent process of recovery. Lake Quinault historically had an estimated wild sockeye run-size of one million as late as 1941 (tribal harvest of 500,000 that year). Obviously, the NWPPC Yakima basin estimate back in the 1980s was a lowball estimate at 600,000 total salmon and steelhead along with the historic estimate of 100,000 steelhead. I do not have a present estimate we will eventually have for historic Yakima steelhead based on spawning gravel, but I can guarantee it will be well above 100,000. The Yakima is an immense basin and steelhead historically used nearly all of it.
For instance, we estimated that the Snohomish basin in 1895 had steelhead runs of about 160,000 and the Nooksack 140,000 or more (Skagit about 105,000 and Stillaguamish about 75,000). None of the Puget Sound rivers had the available basin area the Yakima historically had, and no Puget Sound river had the productivity of the Yakima. The Clearwater River of Idaho had a count of 46,000 steelhead past Lewiston Dam in the early 1960s (before any hatchery program there) and that was after many were harvested in lower Columbia commercial and sport fisheries as well as in Snake River sport fisheries prior to Clearwater River entry (this was after The Dalles Dam inundated Celilo Falls in 1957 and tribal fisheries had yet shifted to gill netting as the former dip net fishery was eliminated). Again, the Yakima basin size is larger than the Clearwater and greater productivity per mile of available stream.