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Support catch and release for wild steelhead

We’re Oregonians who love to fish for steelhead. We recently served as Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commissioners, overseeing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife including Oregon’s fisheries for salmon and steelhead.

Under current regulations, the Rogue and Southern Oregon coastal streams are some of the last places on Earth where sport anglers can kill wild steelhead. Allowing the taking of wild steelhead to continue is deeply controversial and scientifically unsupportable. Our current Fish and Wildlife Commission has the opportunity this fall to fix this issue and put conservation above consumption. If we were still on the commission, we would vote to adopt catch and release for all wild steelhead. Let us tell you why.

First, wild steelhead are in serious decline across their range. Most of the wild steelhead populations are threatened, endangered or extinct. Even among the healthiest fisheries, returns this year have been so poor that fisheries like the North Umpqua, John Day and Deschutes have been restricted or closed altogether.

Due to budget cuts, our fisheries managers don’t know how many wild winter steelhead return to the Rogue or the Chetco rivers. They also don’t know how many of these steelhead are being harvested in the fishery. In the past not knowing always meant keep doing what we’re doing. Not any longer.

Where we do have information it’s clear that wild steelhead are at a tipping point across their range and it’s up to our fisheries managers to make meaningful proactive policy decisions to conserve what we have left. We are in a new era of fisheries management, where waiting for a crisis before acting is no longer acceptable.

Second, the West is gripped in one of the most serious droughts in history. Most of Southern Oregon is currently experiencing severe to exceptional drought. Ranchers and farmers know that less water means fewer crops and fewer grazing animals. For steelhead, it’s no different. Low river levels, dry creeks, and hotter water temperatures means that our rivers are already under stress and producing fewer steelhead to start with. Simply put, the drought has already killed enough fish. We need to ensure that our fishery management decisions do not remove any of the wild steelhead that carry genes that are adapted enough to endure this drought and return from the ocean to spawn in future seasons.

Last, waiting for a crisis before acting will only hurt our rural Oregon communities more. Currently, small towns along steelhead rivers from the North Umpqua to the Deschutes are in dire condition due to wild steelhead runs plummeting to levels so low that all angling is prohibited. Not even catch and release is allowed. Southern Oregon towns rely on steelhead, especially in the winter, to provide a draw for tourists to visit, book fishing guides, rent hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and so on. By adopting catch-and-release for wild steelhead we’re giving the fishery the best chance of staying open long-term by protecting all the wild steelhead that return to spawn. If you must harvest a fish, hatchery steelhead will continue to be available in the Rogue and Chetco rivers. In fact, the Rogue has more hatchery steelhead than any other Oregon coastal river. It’s just not wise nor is it necessary to kill wild steelhead in our Southern Oregon fisheries. These fish possess genetics that have allowed them survive drought events for thousands of years. Is it more important to protect these fish for future generations or put them on someone’s dinner plate? It’s like eating your seed corn!

We encourage any conservation-minded angler to join us and submit public comments supporting catch and release for wild steelhead in southwest Oregon during the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting on Friday, Oct. 15.

Michael Finley of Medford is a former chairman of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. Bruce Buckmaster of Astoria and Jim Bittle of Central Point are former Oregon Fish and Wildlife commissioners.