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Region needs a pause on wild steelhead

Right now, the communities of southwest Oregon have a unique opportunity to help protect wild steelhead and our region’s world-class fisheries.

Until Aug. 1, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking public comments on a draft Conservation and Management Plan for multiple fish species, including summer and winter steelhead, in the Rogue, Chetco, and South Coast rivers from the Elk to the California border.

Within the department’s plan are proposals for key monitoring actions that — if implemented — will provide better population estimates on the number of steelhead returning each year to the Rogue and South Coast rivers.

Today, southwest Oregon is the last region in the Pacific Northwest that still permits anglers to harvest wild steelhead.

Local and visiting anglers of all gear types are concerned about the department’s lack of data on the number of adult winter steelhead returning each year and the impacts from current angler harvest levels.

For the last four years we have been asking for the department to move to catch and release for wild winter steelhead until more is known about the number of adults returning to the Rogue and South Coast rivers.

Our goal is to have more fish returning to southwest Oregon, not to shut down fishing. We are watching rivers close and steelhead fishing opportunities diminish across the region. No longer can we just go fishing without asking the tough questions about the health of the wild steelhead in our local waters.

The reality is fisheries managers are dealing with similar monitoring challenges for counting steelhead populations across the Pacific Northwest. Because overharvest can negatively impact the health of fish populations, catch and release is used as a precautionary management tool that enables more anglers to stay on the water and participate in the fishery.

In some Northwest rivers, state managers have been forced to reduce angling effort with selective gear and boat restrictions, or end steelhead fishing altogether due to intervention by the federal government to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

Low returns of wild steelhead directly impact local anglers, guides, and businesses here in southwest Oregon, but it is incorrect to assume that harvest concerns are merely a social issue.

For wild steelhead to be harvested, we need our managers to reach certain common-sense biological benchmarks to ensure current regulations are not harming the long term health of the populations.

Managers must have adult population estimates for each river, understand how many fish anglers are harvesting (including the impacts of catch and release), and make sure the harvest numbers are low enough to not jeopardize the health of each run (the best available science suggests this threshold is 10% or less of the returning adults for steelhead).

Currently, ODFW does not have the answers to those important questions.

Where reports do exist, winter steelhead survey efforts consist of a small number of creeks for juveniles, and we do not know how many juveniles make it to the ocean and return as adults to spawn successfully for each river where harvest is permitted.

Unfortunately, this means the limited data we do have will only tell us there is a problem after populations are already heading downward. History has demonstrated it is more difficult to recover a population than to manage with a precautionary approach in the first place.

Implementation of the Department’s draft plan with the appropriate funding to support monitoring long term will move us in the right direction. In the meantime, catch and release is the only responsible path forward.

I hope that you will join me and the thousands of other anglers that are asking the Department to put a pause on wild steelhead harvest and show your support for catch and release with Alternative A in the proposed winter steelhead regulations.

The draft Rogue-South Coast Conservation and Management Plan is available for review on the ODFW website. Comments can be submitted to odfw.rsp.comments@odfw.oregon.gov until Aug. 1.

Jake Crawford lives in the Rogue Valley and fishes for steelhead across southwest Oregon.