Opportunities to fish for steelhead in the Yakima Basin remain a distant dream as populations continue to decline.

Cooperation between groups working together to bring back the iconic oceangoing rainbow trout may be at an all-time high, allowing them to reach spawning areas inaccessible for decades. But poor ocean conditions and low survival rates of outgoing steelhead produced the Yakima Basin’s lowest run since 1999, when the National Marine Fisheries Service placed mid-Columbia steelhead on the federal Endangered Species List.

Despite the discouraging numbers and continued declines, some experts still see reasons for optimism. Still, whether the ongoing research and restoration efforts produce enough steelhead to open a local fishery won’t be known for several years, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s regional fish habitat manager, Perry Harvester.

“The more habitat you have, which equates to protection from predators and more food production, then the greater production you can provide as far as steelhead,” Harvester said. “It takes time. It’s something that you certainly don’t get instant gratification if you’re a habitat biologist watching for a response.”

A delisting won’t happen in next year’s five-year review, so the earliest possible time would be 2025. Even that seems unlikely, especially since the Yakama Nation’s Chris Frederiksen said the NMFS would need to see more than just consistently adequate populations.

“There’s other metrics — spatial structure, diversity and productivity,” said Frederiksen, a research biologist who manages the trible’s steelhead population monitoring. “So, really an ESA (Endangered Species Act) or a delisting status is based solely on the probability of an extinction risk threshold.”

Multiple threats

Frederiksen and others believe increasing the steelhead population begins with improving the survival rate of fish leaving the basin.

After one to two years in their spawning ground, juvenile steelhead known as smolts begin their journey to the Pacific Ocean in the spring. Frederiksen wants to see a benchmark survival rate of 70 percent, but he said in bad years only 10-15 percent even reach McNary Dam on the Columbia north of Hermiston, Ore.

Yakima Basin Fish and Wildlife Board executive director Alex Conley said threats to smolts before they even reach the Columbia include spring flow conditions, predation and inadequate fish screens at diversion dams. Efforts have been made to address all three issues, but results can be difficult to track due to the cost and limitations of technology.

“If we have five percent of the young steelhead that leave headed for the ocean come back as adults, that’s actually a high rate,” Conley said. “So to get any kind of statistically reliable numbers you’ve got to be tagging thousands of fish.”

Another complication comes from the life history of young fish known by their scientific name Oncorhynchus mykiss, which can become either steelhead or freshwater-only rainbow trout. As a result, researchers tag those fish to track a trip to the ocean that never happens.

Some encouraging signs point to better production, including outgoing trout spawned from freshwater fish in areas cut off from the ocean for nearly a century. Frederiksen said by opening up passage to those habitats, trout from places like above Wenas Lake demonstrated they still want to go to the ocean.

The Yakima Tributary Access and Habitat Program strives to open up more waterways for adult steelhead to spawn upon their return from the ocean. Since 2003, the Yakama Nation, the wildlife department, the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement group and others have contributed to over 180 projects funded by the Bonneville Power Administration allowed fish to regain access to 233 miles of Yakima Basin habitat — more than the entire length of the Yakima River.

“I think what you’ll see in the Yakima with all the work that’s been done is some streams really shifting towards producing more steelhead,” Conley said. “So it’s not that we’re growing new fish, it’s that those fish are finding anadromy to be a more successful lifestyle.”

Changing conditions

Last year’s run ending June 30 featured only 1,100 steelhead coming over the Prosser Dam, 283 less than the previous year.

That marked the fifth straight year of declines for runs that reached a high of 6,800 in 2010 and stayed above 4,000 until 2015. Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative organizer, Nick Chambers, said the decreasing numbers were no surprise given the poor ocean conditions caused in part by warmer water from a phenomenon known as “the blob.”

“Hopefully next year and the years after it’ll get a bit better,” Chambers said. “But I think we’re probably in one of these 10-year poor cycles.”

Tony Siniscal, a fisheries biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said various ocean currents reduce food availability for salmon and steelhead. Those may be changing and Frederiksen said adverse effects from the 2015 drought should be dissipating, noting this year’s drought didn’t create the same unfavorable conditions.

Early returns on coho, which have a shorter lifespan, appear to show increasing numbers. That could be good news for the steelhead coming back after one to two years, although Chambers cautioned the two species go to different parts of the ocean.

Chambers said management of the Yakima Basin provides a good example for others and it has actually withstood the recent downturn better than other places, such as the wild B-run in Idaho that return to the Clearwater River and some Salmon River tributaries. Forecasts of this year’s steelhead run at the Bonneville Dam keep decreasing and look likely to go lower than last year’s total of 102,920, the lowest number since only 85,540 were counted in 1975.

Future fishery

A Yakima River fishery briefly appeared to be almost within reach earlier this decade.

Chambers said those conversations ended shortly after the downturn began, dropping populations well below the NMFS targets. The 2009 recovery plan requires 3,250 steelhead in the Yakima Basin, with several more specific location-based goals, and Frederiksen hopes populations can return to those numbers within three to four years.

Harvester believes the wildlife department would be willing to consider a catch-and-release fishery if the Yakima Basin consistently meets recovery goals while showing positive trends. It might not even require delisting of mid-Columbia steelhead, if low runs in the Deschutes or elsewhere continue to lag behind.

Even a catch-and-release fishery could cause some harm to steelhead, so Harvester said those decisions won’t be made lightly. But Chambers believes it will happen eventually, and he noted it would even help steelhead statewide by taking pressure off the few areas on the Columbia and other rivers where steelhead fishing is allowed.

“For all the old fly shops and outfitters over there I think that would give them another source of revenue,” Chambers said. “If it’s done well, I think it can be done in a way that really doesn’t have any impact at all to the wild population.”

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe