Derek DeYoung Steelhead Fish Face Collection

Iconic Pacific Ocean Steelhead Numbers Melting Away At Sea

In the world of Salmon Science and Sport the ‘Steelhead’ has long occupied the holiest of holy’s.

Today a new scientific study reveals key reasons for their long and terrible demise on their last swim in the River Styx

No matter what numbers of young produced in streams, rivers, and hatcheries of the Salish Sea that make it to sea the vast majority simply never survive as they find nothing to eat on their vital yet dying ocean pastures.

Fisheries science it seems is no different than other learned pursuits, it is dominated by those who are faithful adherents to the ruling dogma. Never was the phrase ‘don’t rock the boat’ more poignant and problematic.  But today the the Journal of Fisheries Science in Canada some few brave ‘apostate priests’ of fisheries science have dared to preach what has been an open secret for decades. They proclaim that salmon and steelhead of the North Pacific have been starving at sea. The crisis facing the fish has become so bad the heresy to suggest the only part of these fishes life cycle that matters is their early life in freshwater is now out in the open.

Salmon starving at sea

Atlantic Salmon, most like Pacific Steelhead are also starving at sea. This Atlantic Salmon face and the Steelhead face at the top of this post come from Derek DeYoung’s incredible art. click to read more

The new study published today shows that survival of young steelhead trout in ocean environments has also been precipitously declining. Steelhead are most closely related to Atlantic Salmon though the two have never intermingled. They share a similar life-cycle of being able to return to spawn more than once an advantage compared to Pacific Salmon that always die immediately following their spawning orgy.

Using multiple decades of data for 48 populations of wild and hatchery steelhead trout, scientists at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have shown beyond any shadow of doubt failed survival of juvenile steelhead in the ocean is simply the inescapable reason for the disappearance in the abundance of adults.

Well duh! Over the decades whenever fisheries scientists have dared point a finger of blame at ocean conditions for the disappearance of salmonids (salmon and steelhead) unless they were pointing fingers of blame at ‘the usual suspects,’ those nasty over-fishing fishermen, the heretics were promptly excommunicated from the practice of fisheries science. Let’s see if these latest apostate/witches survive the arrival of the ‘bell, book, and candle’ and hooded examiners.

“We were able to compile data from multiple reports and databases to document survival in the ocean of Oregon, Washington, and BC steelhead trout and show that these trends paralleled declines in adult abundance and also differ among populations originating from different areas,” says Dr. Neala Kendall, lead author of the study. “We believe this is the first time these data have been brought together in a single study.”

The study reveals that the fish of the Columbia River and in Puget Sound, part of the Salish Sea that is the great inland waterway of the Pacific Northwest extending north from Seattle several hundred miles through the British Columbia coastal archipelago.  Fish populations in Puget Sound have declined by 77% on average compared to the 1980s; survival averaged 3.1% in the 1980s but dropped to just a fraction of 1% (0.7%) in the 2000s.

The study found nearly perfectly parallel trends in adult abundance. Specifically, numbers of adults in Puget Sound steelhead populations in the 2000s have declined by 53% on average compared to the 1980s.

Abundances of Steelhead have been so low that Puget Sound steelhead were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2007. Steelhead populations in British Columbia included in the study also have all declined in abundance and ocean survival since the 1980s.

The authors of the study seem to know that they are speaking dangerous heresy and are found to add a considerable amount of classic bureaucratic bafflegab to their report. They say… ‘survival and abundance trends, like those generated in this study, can enhance current tools being used to predict changes in steelhead populations. To best conserve steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, especially recovery efforts for Puget Sound populations, “stakeholders and concerned citizens want to better understand why these populations have been struggling and how marine survival has contributed,” Kendall says. “With this information, policymakers and managers can have different expectations about Puget Sound and Lower Columbia steelhead [compared to] fish on the coast due to their different marine survival patterns.” 

What is glaringly missing from this report is the clearly most vital part of the Steelhead saga.

That is the fact that while the steelhead spend a bit of time in fresh water, even returning to spawn more than once at times they spend the preponderance of their life cycle very far from land in the distant ocean pastures of the North Pacific. There once they found an abundance of rich feed to graze upon to thrive and survive but no longer. Their North Pacific ocean pastures have become ever more lifeless clear blue ocean deserts. All of ocean life, not just the iconic steelhead are starving on those dead and dying ocean pastures.

Alaska seabirds starving at sea

Scores of thousands of Alaskan seabirds reported dead in 2016, examination shows they simply starved to death.  – Click to read more

starving whales

Record numbers of dead whales being found throughout the North Pacific. Whales all found to be “emaciated’ aka starved to death. – click to read more

restored ocean pasture blue to green

This is what the work of restoring ocean pastures looks like. On the left a lifeless clear blue ocean, on the right an emerald sea filled with life – Click to read more

Ocean pastures can and must be restored and regenerated and we have the proven means to do so with practical better, faster, low cost methods that can and must be deployed immediately. The cost of performing this vital work is not yet another great sum of money as we have become accustomed to hearing about in this world of ‘climate change’, rather the cost to restore and sustain ocean pastures is so little as to be most remarkable for requiring so little money. We just have to DO or DO NOT.


Phytoplankton – the grass of ocean pastures, or what remains of it can be seen hugging the coast in the NOAA image of chlorophyll summer 2015 – click to enlarge

Only near shore is there a small sliver of survivable life sustaining ocean pasture and even there mostly not. Pandering ‘good news’ reports of ocean health returning when the last dying remnants of ocean life are sighted near our shores is the most crass and cruel we humans can do regarding our blue planets blue crisis.

Reference: “Declining patterns of Pacific Northwest steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) adult abundance and smolt survival in the ocean” by Neala W. Kendall, Gary W. Marston, and Matthew M. Klungle was published today in Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.