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'One of the most precious wild resources we have'

Two coalitions this week will debate whether the Rogue River and other key Southern Oregon streams should remain one of the last places in North America where anglers can keep wild steelhead.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will hold its first two stakeholders meetings this week — one Wednesday in Gold Beach and the other Thursday in Central Point — to vet issues in a fish-management plan for the Rogue and other regional streams.

The central issue for most of the volunteer group members is whether state data on wild steelhead numbers support current rules that allow anglers to keep one wild steelhead a day and up to three per year among all open South Coast streams, including the Rogue, Chetco, Elk and Sixes rivers.

Agency biologists say anglers killing fish are not a primary or even a secondary factor in winter steelhead populations, with habitat access and quality, water quality and other environmental conditions more significant than death by anglers.

Catch data suggest that fewer than 10% of anglers kill more than two wild steelhead a year throughout the South Coast, and that 93% of waterways where wild steelhead are present don’t sport an opportunity to kill even one.

Supporters of the status-quo believe the available data do not suggest a need to shut down wild steelhead harvest, a move opponents believe will dampen the economy that swirls around winter steelhead fishing.

“I just take issue with the guys who say it won’t impact angler participation,” said Dave Strahan, a Grants Pass tackle wholesaler and board member of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

“What’s the threshold? I don’t know,” Strahan said. “I just hope it comes to a point where we feel comfortable with this.”

Others among the stakeholders believe in a “let them go until you know” strategy of requiring catch and release of all wild steelhead unless or until the data soundly say some harvest is OK.

Kyle Smith, who represents Trout Unlimited, said he believes the agency should act with the most care while dealing with wild steelhead in the absence of enough data to prove they can survive some of them going home in coolers instead of to spawning grounds.

“Ultimately, wild harvest is where we would like to be everywhere,” Smith said. “But in order to do that, we think there needs to be data to prove it.

“Wild steelhead are one of the most precious wild resources we have,” Smith said. “We should do everything we can to protect their viability.”

Steve Mazur, ODFW’s Gold Beach District fish biologist, said his agency is going into these meetings with eyes wide open and not just to defend the status quo.

“I think you start from scratch when you go into these stakeholder meetings,” Mazur said. “And we’re actually going to be talking about a lot of other things and not just wild steelhead.”

The stakeholders were broken into two groups — one focusing on South Coast streams, with some attention paid to the lower Rogue, and the other more Rogue-centric.

The lower Rogue and South Coast stakeholders will meet Wednesday at the Curry Public Library, 94341 Third St., Gold Beach.

The middle and upper Rogue contingent will meet Thursday at the Mace Watchable Wildlife Memorial Center at The Expo, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point.

Both meetings will run from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They are open for observation by the public, but public comment will not be taken.

The initial meeting will include a primer on ODFW’s Native Fish Conservation Policy and the process for developing the agency’s management plans. It will also include a summary of known fish counts on the Rogue and other coastal rivers and the current status of wild fish within the plan’s area.

The plan will guide management of wild summer and winter steelhead as well as coho salmon and native cutthroat trout. These are species not yet covered in other plans, such as the Rogue River Spring Chinook Management Plan.

Wild summer steelhead have been a catch-and-release fishery on the Rogue since 1991.

Mazur said he expects public comment opportunities in future meetings.

The debate brings into focus the two main lenses through which ODFW views fish and wildlife conservation and consumption in Oregon.

Through one lens, the commission is the caretaker for the state’s wild animals, charged with conserving these species for current and future generations.

Through the other lens, the agency focuses on allowing the harvest of surplus animals by the public where science suggests it is appropriate.

Both sides in the debate want angling rules to err on their side until data prove otherwise, and that could create a blurry picture.

A draft plan is expected to be released this summer, with a final expected to go before the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission for adoption by the end of the year.

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 TribuneA wild winter steelhead is released on the Sixes River. ODFW is holding stakeholder meetings starting this week to study whether anglers should be allowed to kill wild steelhead.