Catch & Release for Wild Steelhead in Southwest Oregon

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We are longtime southwest Oregon guides and anglers, and we are asking the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to require the release of all wild steelhead in the Southwest Zone.   

On Friday September 14th, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering a proposal to require the release of all wild steelhead in Southwest Oregon, and we are looking for your support!

We are requesting this regulation change for:

Simplicity and consistency. Current Sport Fishing Regulations restrict harvest of wild steelhead in some of the Southwest Zone rivers, while allowing wild steelhead harvest in other Southwest Zone rivers. See pages 34 – 39 in ODFW’s 2018 Sport Fishing Regulations. With the amended regulation change, Oregon’s management of steelhead fisheries will be consistent with wild steelhead angling regulations in the entire Southwest Zone as well as Oregon’s Willamette, Central, and Northeast Zones, and all but two rivers in the Northwest Zone (Salmon River and Big Elk Creek); as well as wild steelhead fishing regulations for every river in California, Idaho, Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia.  

Increased angling opportunity for wild steelhead. Since wild steelhead can be caught multiple times in the same season, or when they return in future seasons to spawn, releasing wild steelhead provides more angling opportunity by keeping wild steelhead in the system.

Sportfishing is the lifeblood of Southwest Oregon. Anglers live in Southwest Oregon and travel from across the country for the opportunity to catch a large, wild steelhead, while spending money in the local, rural economy. Maintaining Southwest Oregon as a world-class wild steelhead fishery will help local businesses in the rural area thrive into the future. It is important that we do our part to keep wild steelhead and anglers coming back to the premier rivers in Southwest Oregon and ensure that fishing opportunity remains for future generations.

More steelhead anglers will be able to participate in the fishery. Keeping wild steelhead in the river, rather than in the possession of the first angler that harvests it, will increase overall catch rates for anglers, and increase satisfaction with the fishery. In turn, this will encourage more steelhead anglers to participate in the fishery. This will also increase license sales, as more people will have the opportunity to catch wild steelhead and continue to be drawn to fish in Southwest Oregon. 

Size Matters.  Harvesting wild steelhead removes large steelhead from the river and gene pool. Since wild steelhead harvest was removed on the Umpqua River, anglers have reported catching larger fish and guides are seeing renewed traffic to that system, which attracts customers from outside the area who spend money at local businesses.  These larger fish often contribute disproportionately to the spawning population, as larger fish are often repeat spawners carrying more gametes than their smaller counterparts.

This regulation will prevent a piecemeal approach for regional changes. The amended regulation to release wild steelhead in all Southwest Zone rivers is intended to be uniform across the region. A harvest closure in one system would likely result in an angler effort shift in harvest to a neighboring river where harvest opportunity is still allowed. We saw this when California’s Smith River restricted wild steelhead harvest in 2010 and anglers traveled north to Southern Oregon to harvest wild steelhead.

Steelhead fishing has been really tough the last couple of years. Multiple years of drought and tough ocean conditions have resulted in a perceived decline with lower than normal returns and reduced catch rates over the last couple years.  The recent largescale habitat disturbance resulting from the Chetco Bar Fire coupled with liberal harvest regulations further threatens future wild steelhead abundance.  The current status of the Southwest Zone’s wild steelhead is not well understood and monitoring wild steelhead is costly and logistically difficult since steelhead do not die after spawning.  Finally, there is currently no Steelhead Conservation and Management Plan for the Southwest Zone and the state’s Native Fish Status Report has not been updated in almost 15 years. Whereas, several Oregon steelhead populations outside the Southwest Zone are listed on ODFW’s sensitive species of concern, taking a precautionary approach to ensure wild steelhead thrive into the future, well before populations collapse, is needed. 

About Current ODFW Management:

The last comprehensive status review of native fish populations in Oregon was in 2005 (see ODFW, Native Fish Status Report, 2005).  To date, there has not been a comprehensive review of wild steelhead status in the Southwest Zone, despite multiple years of chaotic environmental conditions, including drought, El Niño, year-after-year record setting warm air temperatures, and the Blob of hot water in the Pacific Ocean. 

Wild steelhead populations are trending downward in the majority of systems in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, and British Columbia.  There are only a couple of areas left in the Pacific Northwest where wild steelhead are considered relatively stable, yet in every watershed outside of Oregon where steelhead angling is permitted fisheries managers have implemented catch and release regulations for wild steelhead to protect these important stocks. 

As fisheries are constrained across the Northwest and anglers seek out the last remaining healthy populations of wild steelhead, an angler effort shift to the Southwest Zone is likely, and potentially already occurring, it is important to implement proactive regulations to help protect these populations in the future.

Enumerating steelhead abundance is critical for managing run strength, stock composition, and fisheries, but we recognize accomplishing this can be incredibly difficult, particularly in large river systems that occur in the Southwest Zone.  Several techniques such as sonar, mark-recapture experiments, or traditional weirs/barriers could be used to estimate steelhead abundance, but these techniques are often expensive, time consuming, can adversely impact returning fish runs, and can have a significant amount of error associated with the estimate.  Monitoring steelhead is also notoriously difficult because they have the most variable suite of life histories, which greatly complicates assessment and management.  

Population health goals for the KMP steelhead DPS in the Southwest Zone steelhead were established by ODFW in 2003 (Sattherthwaite, 2003).  The report indicated that attainment of the goals would lead to fish managers to conclude that KMP populations are healthy, but due to budget constraints ODFW has not had the resources necessary to complete the ongoing monitoring to understand wild steelhead status in relation to population goals. 

Given the increasingly list of critical species ODFW is working to recover across the state, and the decrease in funding available to the department for monitoring (as seen in the dramatic reduction in monitoring by ODFW for coastal steelhead spawning surveys), in order for the department to fulfill it’s responsibilities under the Native Fish Conservation Policy and prevent the trend towards a federal Endangered Species Act listing, it is in the best interest of the agency, anglers, local businesses, and Oregonians to limit the impacts to sensitive fish populations in the case of uncertainty and help ensure that the Southwest Zone wild steelhead populations sustain robust recreational fisheries now and in the future. 

Implementing catch and release regulations for wild steelhead in the Southwest Zone in the face of these uncertainties is the most cost-effective, equitable, and easy to implement management action to protect these important world-class populations.



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