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Proposed rule change would have guts

When Chuck Closterman ends a successful day of salmon fishing on the Rogue River, he has four choices for disposing of the unwanted guts and carcass of the chinook he keeps.

And each of them, Closterman says, are bad.

He could take the whole salmon home and fillet it there, but the salmon's head and spine would cook into a foul goo inside his garbage can in the hot Grants Pass sun.

Closterman could cut his salmon at the boat ramp as state law allows, then stash the guts in the dumpster at some unsuspecting apartment complex or grocery store that would in turn embrace the stench.

The worst choice is the boat-ramp trash can.

"That's yellow-jacket city," Closterman says. "Just pick up the lid and see what happens. I've been stung a couple times already, so I've given up on that."

The most common and obvious choice to Closterman is to chuck the guts back into the Rogue — away from the boat ramp — and let nature take its course.

"That's what's happening anyway," Closterman says. "Besides, it's just the natural cycle."

Natural? Sure. Legal? No.

That's why Closterman and his Middle Rogue Steelhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited are pushing to make it legal for Rogue anglers to toss carcasses and unwanted fish parts back from whence they came.

The group's bid to allow Rogue anglers to place carcasses in the Rogue away from boat ramps and parks is one of about 250 public proposals to 2009 sport-fishing rule changes that Oregonians will debate this spring and summer.

State law currently bans people from tossing fish parts into waters of the state, even though the return of carcasses to salmon-bearing streams is a well-documented source of nutrients that jump-start wild salmon survival rates.

The value of dead salmon to the ecology is such a no-brainer that Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists get a special waiver for volunteers like Closterman to put the carcasses of hundreds of unwanted Cole Rivers Hatchery salmon into Rogue tributaries each fall.

Besides, anyone visiting a Rogue boat ramp during salmon season can see several fish entrails or filleted carcasses dotting the river bottom every day.

"It's already happening and it's going to happen in the future," Closterman says. "We want it to be legal to do what everybody does unofficially."

Instead of overwhelming boat ramps, Closterman wants anglers to fillet their fish at ramps, then pack the carcasses to another spot in the river and toss them in.

"Indirectly, I think it'll leave the campgrounds cleaner and it gets rid of a rule that's a one-size-fits-all situation," Closterman says.

The proposal already has drawn a sympathetic ear among ODFW biologists just starting to grapple with the behemoth stack of rule proposals they get when they open up the regulation-change process every presidential election year.

But doing so is harder than it looks.

"We're struggling with how to put a rule in place to allow for minimum disposal," says Rhine Messmer, the ODFW's recreational fisheries program manager, who also is spearheading the angling rules-review process.

Any rule that would allow Closterman to toss a carcass into the stream also allows a few hundred others to do the same. At the same place. Even at the same time.

Consider how many carcasses go through a busy boat ramp on a good fall chinook fishing day and suddenly that simple rule starts smelling nasty.

"You could end up with hundreds of carcasses in one place," Messmer says. "What a mess."

Besides, nutrients can at times be too much of a good thing.

Large quantities of decaying matter in stagnant water can harm levels of dissolved oxygen which, in turn, can trigger algae growth. Before you know it, you've got a mini Diamond Lake algae bloom on your hands.

"There's no way to guarantee it's not going to be a problem," Messmer says.

Messmer says biologists want to draft a new rule that makes Closterman's simple ideas plausible and even palatable to others whose charge is to protect the Rogue's water-quality.

"We're trying to look at a rule that can let that happen and not get an angler in trouble," Messmer says. "I don't know if there's a lot of room to maneuver here. We'll see."

Closterman says a new rule could include specifics, such as allowing anglers to toss carcasses only into moving Rogue water of a certain depth and a specific distance — say, like 75 or 100 yards — from boat ramps and parks.

That should guarantee cleaner ramps and fewer yellow-jacket cities in garbage cans while making the life cycle of a caught salmon more like the ones that got away.

"If you don't catch them," he says, "they'll be there anyway."