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New South Coast steelhead plan in the works

GOLD BEACH — Winter steelhead anglers on the Rogue River and other south coast streams would have to buy an additional validation to fish waterways from the Sixes River to the California border, and report all the wild steelhead they kill, under a new draft management plan that’s in the works.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is floating “for discussion purposes only” its first draft of a long-awaited Rogue-South Coast Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan among public stakeholders who have helped shape the draft.

The plan targets the Rogue and other coastal streams, which are unique in North America in that they still allow limited killing of wild winter steelhead instead of requiring only catch-and-release fishing.

The draft includes returning the annual wild steelhead harvest limit from three to five a year on the Rogue and Chetco rivers, but includes a desire to ratchet those numbers down when returns dictate more conservation needs, according to the draft.

The agency will take input from its stakeholder groups as well as fishery-management agencies to craft a draft plan expected to be released to the public by spring. A final draft is expected to be sent to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission for possible adoption later this summer.

The proposed new $2 annual Rogue-South Coast Steelhead Validation would work similarly to a current validation needed for anglers fishing Columbia Basin streams, including the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Anglers would need to buy that validation tag to fish for winter steelhead here Dec. 1 through April 30. That’s when most winter steelhead seasons close on coastal streams, but not the Rogue, which remains open year-round for steelhead.

Under the proposal, anglers could start to keep wild steelhead on the lower Rogue Dec. 1 instead of the Jan. 1 start under current rules.

Anglers also would need to buy a new $10 Wild Steelhead Harvest Card for mandatory reporting of the wild steelhead they kill, the draft states. The card would not be required for those who release the wild winter steelhead they catch.

“Everybody would have to get the validation, but catch-and-release anglers would not have to buy the harvest card,” says Steve Mazur, ODFW’s Gold Beach District biologist.

Nonresidents would pay $4 for the south coast validation and $20 for the Wild Steelhead Harvest Card, according to the draft.

Mazur says the validation and harvest cards, along with their prices, are not set in stone. Also, any new fees would have to be adopted by the Oregon Legislature.

The proposed new validation card is expected to raise about $80,000 a year for monitoring wild winter steelhead in the affected streams, which include the Sixes, Elk, Rogue, Pistol, Chetco and Winchuck rivers.

Much of that money would be earmarked for better monitoring to develop steelhead populations on the various rivers — a key concern among stakeholders involved in the planning, Mazur says.

“We’ll be doing a lot more monitoring through this plan,” Mazur says. “That’s a big part of this.”

Some anglers, such as Brookings-based guide Andy Martin, who serves on the panel, have opposed any increased fees tacked onto what they believe are already a financial burden to fishers.

“ODFW already charges high license fees,” Martin says. “A resident license and harvest tag in Oregon costs me almost as much as a nonresident license and tag in California.”

The Rogue’s summer steelhead anglers are exempt from the validation and card because wild summer steelhead have been banned from anglers’ coolers since 1990. The Rogue is also the region’s only stream with a summer steelhead run, though wild and hatchery summer steelhead are known to stray into other coastal streams.

The draft states that the south coast’s wild winter steelhead populations are relatively stable. Current laws allowing the killing of some wild steelhead by anglers do not “negatively impacting viability” of these runs, the draft states.

Since 2018, anglers have been allowed to keep one wild steelhead a day and up to three per year collectively on south coast streams.

Estimates are that anglers catch and keep collectively no more than 15% of adult wild steelhead migrating in the Rogue and other south coast streams, with most streams actually under 10%, he draft states.

But that data is extrapolated from creel surveys and voluntary submissions of steelhead harvest card information from anglers who historically provide data at a low rate.

But some wild steelhead advocates argue that killing wild steelhead should be shelved until the data show a clearer picture of the stress these steelhead face by anglers.

“It’s about comfort with risk,” said Mark Sherwood, executive director of the Native Fish Society and a panelist on ODFW’s planning effort. “The huge lack of information means we’re taking a lot of risk.”

Sherwood believes the draft is a middle-of-the-road approach to the ideals of various factions on the south coast plan panel. He prefers that the final draft forged by ODFW contain not just a single recommendation but a series of options that better reflect the ideas of those on the panel for the commission to consider.

The current draft also explores a suite of other possibilities to get more hatchery winter steelhead into anglers’ hands to keep as part of the traditional two-fish daily limit.

The draft also floats the idea of shifting 15,000 winter steelhead smolts from release into the Applegate River at Applegate Dam to a new acclimation site in Jumpoff Joe Creek, a tributary of the Rogue downstream of Merlin.

If adopted, it would join a similar acclimation project now ongoing in two Grants Pass creeks.

The idea is to get more Applegate hatchery steelhead caught in the Rogue instead of heading into the Applegate River, where the majority of hatchery fish arrive after the March 31 fishing season ends.

The draft also considers revisiting a 1990 recommendation by the Rogue River Summer Steelhead Task Force to increase summer steelhead production at Cole Rivers Hatchery. However, the draft does not call for any immediate changes to summer steelhead release numbers or locations in the Rogue.

The draft also calls for expanding the winter steelhead hatchery program in the Chetco in increments of 10,000 smolts per year as long as straying rates on wild steelhead spawning beds remain low.

“That is something the public overwhelmingly supports on the south coast,” Martin says.

Current releases in the Chetco are 50,000 smolts annually, and they are the offspring of steelhead caught and donated live by anglers, with two-thirds of the spawning group made up of wild steelhead.

Some wild fish advocates oppose expansion of any of the South Coast hatchery programs.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A native winter steelehead is released on the Sixes River..