Hoh Tribe Counting Steelhead Returns And Tracking Low Water Flow Concerns

HOH (June 15, 2004) — The Olympic Peninsula is home to some of the healthiest runs of wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. Among the half dozen rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean, the Hoh is one of the most revered steelhead streams.

The Hoh Tribe, situated at the mouth of the river, has always depended on fishing, particularly steelhead. The fish are especially important because they return over a longer period (four months) and at a time when there are no salmon to catch.

The tribe, as a co-manager of the resource, assesses spawning escapement of the wild steelhead runs based upon redd (salmon nests) counts, which begin in spring and continue through early summer. Escapement is the number of fish allowed to pass upstream and spawn so that a run can be sustained at a desired level.

As Richard Sherriff, Hoh tribal member and fisheries technician surveys the river for steelhead nests this spring, he’s seeing dry conditions and low water flows.

Tribal biologists worry most about the combined effects of a succession of low water summers, winter floods and adverse ocean temperature conditions on one or even two succeeding years of salmon and steelhead. “It’s a concern that has grown in recent years as the frequency of extreme conditions seems to have increased,” said Jim Jorgensen, fisheries biologist for the Hoh Tribe. “With lower summer and early fall flows, returning fall chinook adults may be blocked from upriver spawning areas. Juvenile salmon and steelhead will encounter a smaller area of suitable rearing habitat, lowering their survival. Severe winter flow tends to decrease survival of juvenile steelhead by limiting their ability to find places to get out of high flows while expending too much energy in their search,” said Jorgensen. “Most wild steelhead juveniles spend two winters in local rivers before entering the ocean, compared to one year by coho, increasing steelhead vulnerability to winter refuge limitations.”

Both chinook and coho eggs may be lost to severe winter flows, particularly chinook, as their egg nests are in the main stem of the river and exposed to the most river scouring during heavy flows.

In April, a record low rainfall of just over 2 inches was recorded at the Hoh Rain Forest rain gauge in Olympic National Park.; the average is nearly 10 inches. For the year, rainfall totals are slightly more than half the normal average of 67 inches through May 31.

Despite rains at the end of May, this summer is shaping up to be another dry year, Jorgensen said. Lower accumulation of snow and rain precipitation in May may hinder the river’s ability to provide adequate flows through the end of summer and early fall. “In one way, it’s helped us,” said Jorgensen. “We’re able to more accurately count redds (salmon nests) with this period of low, clear flows.”

For fisheries technician Sheriff, walking the Hoh River looking for salmon nests brings back memories of river fishing as a young man. “I grew up on the Hoh. I remember hiking up river with my nets to catch steelhead and camping out. It’s good to know that by doing this work, I’m doing something that benefits the tribe in some way too.”